Entering their opening series in Los Angeles, the Diamondbacks were 3-19 against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium since the start of the 2020 season. Now, they are 5-21.
Suffice it to say it’s going to take some time for the D-backs to redeem all that has gone wrong for them in that ballpark in recent years. As manager Torey Lovullo put it, they have been “bullied” by the Dodgers and other NL West opponents. Nonetheless, Sunday’s 2-1 win — and the ensuing series split — was a good start to the 2023 season.
In a sense, that series split is deceiving. It seems to imply that the two teams performed similarly. That was not the case.
The Diamondbacks’ offense drew one walk in four games. The Dodgers’ offense drew 23 walks. Diamondbacks starting pitchers had a cumulative ERA of 5.71. Dodgers starting pitchers had a cumulative ERA of 1.44. The Diamondbacks had a team OPS of .513. The Dodgers had a team OPS of .790.
Nonetheless, in much the same way that bloop hits show up as line drives in the box score, this Diamondbacks-Dodgers series went in the standings as a tie, regardless of what story the run differential might tell.
The series also taught us some things about the kind of team the Diamondbacks are going to be in 2023.
1. When offense struggles, Diamondbacks’ speed can take over
Every team goes through offensive slumps, and the Diamondbacks are far from the only team that had a rough go at the plate in their first series. Veteran third baseman Evan Longoria chalked it up to hitters being a bit too eager early in the season.
“Everybody wants to get off to a good start,” he said after Saturday’s game. “It’s hard when you don’t. It’s hard when you don’t get a couple hits in your first game or your first couple games. You start to feel like the O-fers are mounting up, and there’s pressure that comes with that.”
For many teams, the best course of action in a slump is to simply keep working and wait for it to pass. The Diamondbacks, however, have something of a backup plan: Bunt and run like hell.
Jake McCarthy showed off his 99th-percentile sprint speed with a two-out, go-ahead, RBI bunt single in the ninth inning. It worked to perfection, and it ultimately was the difference in the D-backs’ 2-1 win on Sunday.
“This series, balls didn’t seem to be dropping,” McCarthy said. “A few fly outs, groundouts, whatever.
“You do the percentages there, I’m a pretty good bunter. I’ve been working on that play this spring, so I figured, why not.”
Had Brusdar Graterol fielded the ball cleanly, McCarthy might have been out. Nonetheless, there’s something about the pressure that the speedy Diamondbacks outfielders, including McCarthy, can put on defenders that forces them to rush.
“They look at the pitcher and check the athleticism and their ability to move off the mound,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “There was a forcing mentality by Graterol knowing that a very good runner was going down the line.
“Everyone was wondering if I made the call on that. I did not. Those are instinctual plays, and I open the door for these kids to execute on that level. When they see something, we practice it a lot and they’re ready to take advantage of it.”
The Diamondbacks’ other run in the game was also a direct result of their speed. After leading off the fifth inning with a single, Corbin Carroll stole both second and third base. Dodgers catcher Will Smith was unable to get a throw off in either case.
Geraldo Perdomo then doubled Carroll home, tying what was then a 1-1 game.
Had Carroll not at least stolen second, it seems unlikely that he would have been able to score. And, if he had, that would have been because of his outrageous speed, too.
Ultimately, the Diamondbacks wound up need only two runs on Sunday, and both can be chalked up to what they did on the base paths. It feels like this won’t be the last time we say that this season.
2. Kyle Lewis, other additions could be answer to D-backs’ issues against lefties
It is no secret that the 2022 Diamondbacks had too many left-handed hitters, and, unsurprisingly, struggled to hit left-handed pitching as a result. They ranked 14th in baseball with a .703 OPS against righties compared to just 26th with a .655 OPS against lefties.
After trading the left-handed hitting Daulton Varsho over the offseason and bringing in four right-handed hitters in Evan Longoria, Gabriel Moreno, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Kyle Lewis, the team should be more competitive against south paws this season. In the eighth inning of Friday’s 2-1 win, we saw it in action.
When left-handed reliever Alex Vesia entered the game for the Dodgers, Lovullo pinch-hit for three consecutive hitters: Nick Ahmed for Alek Thomas, Longoria for Perdomo and Lewis for Josh Rojas.
Ahmed grounded out, but Longoria doubled and Lewis hit a two-run homer to give the Diamondbacks the lead.
Last year, the Diamondbacks lacked an effective counterpunch for left-handed relievers. This year, expect to see a lot of Longoria and Lewis in those big moments.
As is the case for all hitters at this point, both Longoria and Lewis do have a lot more to prove. Longoria’s double was his only hit in the series in seven at-bats. Lewis also had a double in Saturday’s game, but six of his nine total plate appearances in the series ended in a strikeout.
It’s too early to make any judgements on how much Longoria and Lewis will contribute, but at the very least, the team’s roster construction is much more favorable for late-game situations against lefties than it has been in the past.
3. Madison Bumgarner’s arm already showing more wear and tear
Roughly six months after Madison Bumgarner’s season was cut short in part to set him up for a full and healthy offseason, the veteran lefty is being sent to Arizona to be evaluated for arm fatigue.
“It’s all precautionary at this point,” Lovullo said. “He feels very strongly that he’s not going to miss a start, but we just wanted to be 100 percent sure in this situation.”
For now, the Diamondbacks have not made any roster moves. Theoretically, they could skip Bumgarner’s next start without causing any issues for the rest of the rotation.
As illustrated by the velocity and spin rate readings below, Bumgarner’s stuff in his Saturday start was not where it was last year.
It is worth noting that Bumgarner’s velocity and spin rates not only dropped from last season — where one more year of aging could easily be the explanation — but his stuff dropped off from his last spring training start as well.
Specifically, his velocity decreased 0.3-0.7 mph across the board from his last spring start on March 27, and his spin rates dropped considerably, including a dip of 175 rpm on his four-seam fastball.
4. Drey Jameson could be key bullpen piece
Drey Jameson has only made one appearance out of the bullpen for the Diamondbacks, but Lovullo said that his team won the game because of it.
In four innings on Friday, Jameson struck out five, walked three and allowed just one one run on three hits. The Diamondbacks ultimately won the game, 2-1.
“I told [Jameson] the other day … that he’s going to get a lot of big outs for us,” Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly said. “The fact that our quote-on-quote long guy is blowing 99 mph fastballs with a wipeout slider, it’s a really, really good asset to have.”
Outside of a couple of unique situations in the minors, Jameson had not pitched out of the bullpen since he was a freshman at Ball State University. All indications are that he has embraced the role wholeheartedly.
“He was new to the whole experience,” Lovullo said. “I saw him firing the ball in the bullpen on the monitor, and he made himself available as quickly as possible. He did everything right.”
Jameson relied heavily on his slider in the outing, throwing it 52 percent of the time. It was very effective, generating eight whiffs in 12 swings.
“Everybody thinks that just because you throw 100 miles an hour, that’s going to be the only quality pitch you have,” Lovullo said. “That’s not the case with Drey. He can spin it. He can maneuver the fastball a little bit. He did a really good job.”
Jameson threw 66 pitches in total in Friday’s game, and Lovullo said that he would probably be down for three days. That would make him available to pitch again on Tuesday, when the D-backs take on the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.
5. The Dodgers looked very, very good
After an offseason that saw a few marquee names go elsewhere, some believe that the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers are no longer the juggernaut they used to be. It’s too early to make any firm judgements on that claim, but it sure did not seem to be true over the weekend.
While the series ended in a split, the Dodgers outscored the Diamondbacks, 20-7. Had the runs been parsed out less favorably for the D-backs, it is entirely possible that the Dodgers could have swept this series.
A few key players, in particular, stood out, and not just the usual suspects of Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Clayton Kershaw.
One of them is Noah Syndergaard, who signed as a free agent over the offseason after posting a 3.94 ERA in 25 starts last year with the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies. In his season debut on Sunday, Syndergaard allowed just one run on four hits over six innings with no walks and six strikeouts.
Also of note on the pitching side is Dustin May, who made his major-league debut in 2019 but has logged only 150 2/3 career innings due to injury, including Tommy John surgery in 2021. May looked every bit like the top-of-the-rotation starter that many once perceived him to be, tossing seven scoreless innings on Friday with one walk, four strikeouts and only three hits allowed.
The Dodgers had several notable performers at the dish as well. Trayce Thompson, who figures to be a fixture in their lineup against lefties, had a three-homer game, including a first-inning grand slam against Bumgarner. James Outman, an outfield prospect who made his big-league debut late last year, went 2-for-7 in the series with a home run, three walks and a 1.259 OPS. Infielder and top prospect Miguel Vargas went 2-for-5 in the series with a double and eight walks.
The Dodgers’ success in 2023 relies just as much on these players stepping up as it does on Freeman, Betts and Will Smith continuing to do their thing. If their supporting cast is as good as it looked over the weekend, the Dodgers could be just as much of a World Series contender as they’ve been the past few years.
In light of how well the Dodgers played over the weekend, it remains something of a mystery how the Diamondbacks got out of Dodger Stadium with a 2-2 record. Next, they’ll head south, hoping to hold their own once again against a similarly formidable opponent in the San Diego Padres.
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Top photo: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports