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AZ 3/3, Dodgers 4/6 - Double Trouble

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Record: 63-67. Change on last season: +5

Even though we were down 3-0 on Saturday night, I licked my lips in anticipation as I saw Derek Lowe forced to leave the game in the fourth. While reluctant to wish ill on any professional sportsman (and I was glad there was no permananent damage), throwing Los Angeles on to their depleted bullpen for the last five innings was just what was needed. And lo, the Diamondbacks inexorably reeled in the Dodgers, with single runs in the fourth, seventh and eighth to tie the game. Batista pitched eight solid innings as a start, so we had Los Angeles just where we wanted them: reeling and on the ropes with few, if any, arms left in the bullpen.

So, who did Melvin choose to pitch the ninth? Vizcaino, who walked the bases loaded yesterday and threw only 11 strikes in 26 pitches. Now, while not quite a season high (that would be 28, on two occasions), when he's pitched that many, he's almost always not pitched again for four days afterwards. We also had a number of less taxed arms available, such as Juan Cruz - four pitches this homestand - or Jorge Julio, with just nine pitches in the previous week. [It's not a "save situation", but none of Jorge's last four appearances have been]

Sure, it's hindsight, but Vizcaino would have been at least my third, if not lower, choice for the situation. And what happened? Kent smacked a homer to give the Giants back the lead, and their closer then pounced with a 1-2-3 ninth inning to steal a win. A victory would have put us two games behind Los Angeles, with a chance of the sweep today. Instead, the defeat rolled us back to four games behind the Dodgers once more. And given the crucial nature of this series, I would be putting my best eight position players out there: this does not currently include Clark and Counsell, who went 1-for-7. Bob Melvin, this one's on you.

And why didn't we use a little imagination with regard to the roster? The Dodgers pulled up a fresh reliever in Hamaluck from their Triple-A affiliate: he pitched a crucial, perfect sixth inning with two K's. Arizona certainly could have done with someone like Edgar Gonzalez available [Doug Slaten and his 0.50 ERA would also be possible, but think he'd need to be added to the 40-man roster; good article on him in the AZ Daily Star. Mike Bacsik is another contender, but he's off with Team USA in the Olympics qualifier]. Let's face it, EdGon could well be coming up next week anyway when the rosters expand, so it's only a temporary issue.

Orlando Hudson was the offensive star, with three of our ten hits, but made a couple of horrible mental errors in the fourth that don't show up in the boxscore. Hudson was slow getting to second on what should have been a ground-out to Counsell - the base-runner reached the bag first, and a run scored from third as a result. He led off our fourth with a double, and should have reached third on Gonzo's deep flyout to center. Said Hudson, "I thought it was going off the wall, I really did." He then made the second out when he was caught trying to steal third.

Estrada and Tracy both had two hits each. It was Chad's bobblehead night at Chase, and - presumably as a result - the crowd of 40,358 was Arizona's largest at home this season. However, we only managed one walk, to Gonzalez, and I did see Tracy's eighth-inning at bat, with one out and two men on. It was not a thing of beauty shall we say, and ended with Tracy striking out at ball four, that was so far inside, it almost hit him. I doubt that the 2005 version of Tracy would have been seen swinging wildly at that pitch. Hell, the bobblehead would probably have shown better plate selection.

Great, almost essential outing by Batista: eight innings of four hit ball. He did allow four walks, but the only real problem was a two-run single to Nomar Garciaparra in the third inning. At that point, his pitch count was worryingly high, but he got a couple of quick frames, and so got through eight innings, which was just what the bullpen needed. However, he left with us down 3-2, but since we subsequently tied up the game, he still ended up with his eighth no-decision in the past ten games. Does preserve his unbeaten streak though: he's now 3-0 since June 20.

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Today: Luis the Loser

Today's game was a more comprehensive drubbing; it would be difficult to point to a particular aspect as especially deficient. Livan Hernandez started off well enough, posting zeroes on the board for the first four innings, and he was holding a 1-0 lead in the fifth. However, he hit trouble in the fifth, and a fateful decision to intentionally walk Martin with a runner on third and one out, in order to get to the opposing pitcher, backfired. The pitcher bunted Martin to second, and then Furcal drove both runners in with a triple.

By the time Livan left, he'd thrown six innings, and allowed five earned runs on eight hits and three walks. That lifts his ERA as a Diamondback to 4.88 in four starts, which is worrying, despite the good start-and-a-half (until the fifth today). In particular, he's allowed 37 hits in 27.2 innings, definitely a higher figure that you'd want from someone slated as our #3 starter for next year. Looks like the starting pitching is going to be the biggest area of concern over this off-season. Hang on, wasn't it the biggest area of concern over last off-season too?

After his departure, Medders came in and allowed a run on two hits in the seventh inning. However, Valverde had another couple of good frames, throwing nineteen strikes in 24 pitches, as he worked a scoreless eighth and ninth, giving up two hits and fanning two. He seems to be getting stretched out since his return - that's his fifth straight two-inning appearance, compared to only one before his stint in Tucson. That's not a bad position to have a pitcher for, and it seems to suit Papa Grande, as the sum tally of all his two inning starts this year is 12 IP, 7 H, 2 BB, 18 K, 2 ER.

We jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first, on a two-out single by Tracy. Indeed, all our runs came with two-out hits, the other two coming on a double by Luis Gonzalez - tying him for 22nd on the all-time list, alongside Rogers Hornsby with 541 - and a ninth-inning single by Byrnes. That brought the tying run to the plate, in the shape of Orlando Hudson, who already had two hits, but he couldn't quite come through, and we lost for the eighth time in ten games. Byrnes had three hits, while Tracy joined Hudson in delivering a pair of knocks. Gratifyingly, we actually had more walks than strikeouts, with Hudson and Quentin the only men to K.

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Today: Here's to 2007...

But that's really clutching at straws, in a defeat which, to all intents and purposes, probably put the final nail in the 2006 season for Arizona. The management and players will, I'm sure, continue to say all the right things about how we're going to keep on competing until we're mathematically eliminated. But the best thing to do is to treat the remaining 32 games as a test-bed, where we can begin the process of establishing a lineup for next season. We need to find out, for example, whether Hairston would be a credible LF for next year. This should be a ruthless process: management should not care how much any proven veterans may bleat to the press. They had their chance, and they blew it.

Thanks to Englishdback, VIII, npineda, andrewinnewyork, William K and nargel for their comments over the past couple of days. And congratulations to the Tucson Sidewinders who, as noted by William K, captured the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast League today. So there will be some playoff baseball in Arizona this year - just probably not at the major-league level...

Heroes and Zeroes
Series 41: vs Dodgers, at home

Hudson: 9-for-15, 4 RBI, 2 BB
Batista: 8 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 3 ER
Valverde: 4 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 6 K
-----------------------------
Hernandez: 6 IP, 8 H, 3 BB, 5 ER
Vargas: 4.1 IP, 10 H, 6 ER
Vizcaino: 2 IP, 1 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, Loss

Pitcher-dominated series, but top honours go to Orlando Hudson. Despite a couple of bad mistakes around the infield in Saturday's game, he's still hitting like a fiend. This series brought his average for August up to .337 - the third straight month he has hit over .300 - and his season figure to .288. If he keeps this up, it will be very worthwhile hanging on to him, since second basemen with an OPS of over .900 (like O-Dawg's from June on) don't grow on trees. As this chart shows, even including his slow start, Hudson still currently ranks 10th for OPS among second basemen in the majors. An .850 OPS would be beaten only by Chase Utley and Ray Durham; I'd take that level of offensive production, and never mind his glove.

Elsewhere, much credit to Mr. No Decision, Miguel Batista, who gave us eight innings when we needed it most - though I think Melvin would have left him out there for eight innings even if Miggy was reduced to tossing the ball towards the plate underhand. That it was a very solid, quality start was merely a bonus. And see above for my notes on Valverde, who appears to be back into the form that he showed early in the year. It's probably too late to be of much use this year, but if we don't re-sign Julio - and I'm not convinced we want to - then a strong Valverde will be a crucial part of our 2007 plans.

On the dark side of the force this series, Jar Jar Binks is played by Livan Hernandez. His start today began very well, but the wheels fell off after the intentional walk to Martin, with the sort of speed not seen since Elmer Dessens took the mound. In the role of Grand Moff Tarkin (carpet slippers optional), is Claudio Vargas: he dug us a deep hole against Greg Maddux, from which we were very lucky to recover. And breathing heavily behind the black mask, as Darth Vader, is Luis Vizcaino. He came within an ace of disaster on Friday night, walking the bases loaded after getting the first two outs, then allowed the ninth inning home run to the Dodgers on Saturday. That may well prove to have marked the end of Arizona's playoff chances.