Diamondbacks Finish Surprising First Half

Diamondbacks Finish Surprising First Half

After most prognosticators forecast the Arizona Diamondbacks to languish in the NL West cellar all year and perhaps compete for the worst record in all of baseball, the ballclub went on an improbable 15-2 May run and no sit six games over .500 and three games in back of the first-place San Francisco Giants.

Even though the Arizona Diamondbacks are one of the surprise teams in the major leagues after losing 92 and 97 games the previous two years, they are not surprising themselves. They have bought into manager Kirk Gibson's demand to play 27 outs every day and have won 34 games since May 13, the most in the NL (Atlanta has 33) and the second most in the majors (Boston has 38).

Sparked by a 15-2 run in mid-May, the D-backs became the first team in major league history to overcome a deficit of 6 1/2 games or more to take a division lead in May. After being in fifth place in the NL West on April 30, the D-backs overtook the defending World Series champion Giants on May 29 and held a half-game lead for the rest of the month.

The D-backs already have 24 come-from behind victories and have overcome deficits of three runs (twice), four (twice), five (twice), and six (once), the last tying a franchise record. And their 18 one-run victories are one short of their 2010 total and reminiscent of the 2007 NL West-winning "anyone, any time" group that won a franchise-record 32 one-run games.

General manager Kevin Towers' bullpen remake has been the major reason for the turnaround, and if the arms stay healthy, there is reason to believe the D-backs will continue to win the close ones. With closer J.J. Putz and setup man/interim closer David Hernandez pulling the load, the D-backs are 36-3 in games in which they have led after seven innings and 44-0 when they have led after eight.

Putz had 21 saves in 25 attempts before being put on the disabled list with elbow soreness July 1. Since then, Hernandez has converted all five of his save opportunities without allowing a hit. Putz is expected back early in the second half.

The D-backs lead the NL with 297 extra-base hits behind the heart-of-the-order punch of Justin Upton, Chris Young and Miguel Montero. Both Upton and Young are hitting over .300 since late May. Upton and Young, close friends who locker next to each other, have hit third and fourth in the lineup since mid-June.

Right-handers Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson finished the first half with nine victories apiece, one of three NL pairs to have as many victories in the first half. Left-hander Joe Saunders has made it a strong threesome by going 6-1 with as 2.72 ERA since mid-May, and his presence has helped stabilize a rotation that had been dreadful before the additions of southpaw Zach Duke and right-hander Josh Collmenter.

SNAKE BYTES

--RHP J.J. Putz (right elbow tendinitis) threw a bullpen session Sunday, the first time he has pitched off a mound since landing on the disabled list. Putz, who has 21 saves in 25 chances this season, played catch off a mound Friday. "He looked fine, but how does he come out of it?" manager Kirk Gibson said. Putz received a cortisone shot June 29, and the recovery period is usually about 20 days.

--RHP Daniel Hudson, 9-5 with a 3.89 ERA, leads major league pitchers in hits (12) and RBI (nine) entering the break after getting two singles and two RBI in St. Louis on Saturday. His three doubles are tied for second among pitchers, one behind San Francisco LHP Jonathan Sanchez. "I don't really go up there with any kind of plan -- just swing hard in case you hit it," Hudson said. Hudson has hit safely in five of his last six starts, going 6-for-12 with four RBI. The D-backs have won 12 of his 15 starts since he opened the season 0-4.

--Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson caught one of his managerial idols, St. Louis' Tony La Russa, in a lineup card snafu Friday, causing the Cardinals to lose the services of C Yadier Molina. The Cardinals' lineup card had Molina hitting seventh, so after C Gerald Laird took the position in the top of the first inning, Gibson pointed it out to the umpires, and Molina was ruled to have been removed from the game.

--OF Wily Mo Pena made his first start of the season in the outfield Sunday when he replaced LF Gerardo Parra against St. Louis LHP Jaime Garcia. Pena, whose contract was purchased from Triple-A Reno primarily so he could serve as a DH during interleague play, had a single in four at-bats and had no trouble in left. "He's been working out there every day," manager Kirk Gibson said. While the D-backs will no longer need a DH, Pena appears to have solidified a roster spot with his work as a pinch hitter.  So far he is 3-for-7 in that role with two homers, one a walk-off, two-run shot in a 6-4 victory over Cleveland on June 28.

--INF Ryan Roberts singled as a pinch hitter in consecutive games at St. Louis on Friday and Saturday, driving in a run Saturday. He is 5-for-10 as a pinch hitter this season. He has been platooning at third base with left-handed-hitting Sean Burroughs since Burroughs returned from Triple-A Reno on July 1.

DIAMOND STAT: 24 -- Comeback victories for the D-backs at the All-Star break.

QUOTABLE: "That's who we are. We fight until the end. I think we are capable of handling pressure." -- RHP David Hernandez, on the team's ability to come back.


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