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AZ 3/9, Cardinals 0/7 - Reno 911

Record: 68-75. Change on last season: +3
Rookies in starting lineup: 2 + 3

I must go away more often, since in my absence, the D'backs put together the first three-game winning streak since mid-July. They took the final two games of the Cardinals series, behind a Cy Young-worthy one-hitter from Brandon Webb and some timely (in the "about time too" sense) offense from Tony Clark. [The trip, as an aside was, a mixture of the good and the bad. Good = the scenery around Lake Tahoe is awesome. Bad = the Reno casino strip feels too much like a run-down Vegas wannabe. Good = winning a $520 mini-progressive at the first slot machine we played. Bad = Mrs. SnakePit getting a $220 speeding ticket at the airport on the way out. Things you don't want to say to a local cop, #1: "So, which member of the 911 cast are you, officer?" Anyway...]

Back on Saturday, Brandon Webb produced what was likely his best performance of the season, and quite possibly, his career as well. He limited the Cardinals offense to one hit, a double by Rolen, as he pitched his third complete game shutout of the year, in truly majestic fashion. No walks, five K's, and at only 96 pitches, he barely broke sweat. According to ESPN, it ranks as the =4th best-pitched game of 2006 in the NL - ahead of the Sanchez no-hitter, because of the walks - and from what I saw of it, I heartily agree. He was making his pitches, locating his pitches, and the movement on them took care of the rest.

According to Melvin, Webb threw just six off-speed pitches the entire night, the rest were fastballs (mostly two-seam) and the dreaded sinker. The only hitter to reach bar Rolen was Pujols; he reached on an errors by Jackson. Rolen also took advantage of a gaffe by Tracy: another throw that pulled Jackson off the back, his 24th error of the year, so his own franchise record (26 during 2004) in a season is within reach. The game was again held under the September skies in Phoenix, with the roof open, and was over in just 1:54, making it the quickest game in Chase Field history. Good crowd for it too, over 33,000.

It was a comforting performance on multiple levels: Webb has recently been a bit blah on the mound of late, so it was a great reassurance to see him return to the early-season form which took him to an 8-0 record. There's no question that it also gives Webb a big boost in the Cy Young race: September one-hitters will get the voters' attention. It ties him at 15 for the NL lead in wins with Brad Penny, and none of the pitchers with more than 13 have an ERA below 3.50. Webb's has dropped down to exactly three after this outing, a figure beaten only by Chris Carpenter's 2.97.

Of course, Carpenter is likely in the playoffs but, unlike the MVP, voters seem to regard this as less important than when giving out the Cy Young. Eric Gagne won the award in 2003, even though his team didn't make the post-season, as did some guy called Randy Johnson in 2000. :-) However, it's rare for the NL Cy Young to go to a pitcher on a losing team: the last time was 1997, when Pedro Martinez won it, as the Expos finished 78-84. That seems about the watershed; nobody has won the NL Cy Young playing for a side with a worse record, since Randy Jones in 1976 on the 73-90 Padres. So, if the D'backs can post a winning record over their remaining 19 games, that would appear to help Webb's case a lot.

We needed a sterling outing, since our offense was only "good enough", managing six hits against the Cardinals' staff. However, three went for extra bases, and were crucial in letting us scratch out single runs in three of the first four innings. Counsell broke out of his slump with a leadoff double, and scored; Quentin his his seventh home-run into left-center during the second; and Jackson doubled, then scored, in the fourth. Counsell and Snyder had two hits apiece, but it was definitely not the offensive explosion which we saw on the previous night.

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Today: Cy It Ain't So!

Sunday's game was not one that will be found in ESPN's list of well-pitched games, as the teams combined for 16 runs, a figure not surpassed in a D'backs game since the 11-7 defeat by Seattle at Chase Field, back in June. There were 23 hits and five errors by the two sides combined, leading to five unearned runs. It took a sterling fight from Arizona to win this: I caught a glimpse of the score (in between Wheel of Fortune slot sessions!) and when I saw it was 7-4 to the Cardinals in the seventh, I didn't think we'd come back.

However, much to the Diamondbacks' credit, they did. Tony Clark got all the headlines for his go-ahead pinch-hit homer in the eighth, but probably a more significant hit, in terms of the game overall was Johnny Estrada's double in the seventh that tied the score at seven. We scored three runs that inning, after St. Louis had retired the first two batters, as five straight Arizona hitters reached base safely. Estrada drove in three runs on two hits, while Luis Gonzalez went 4-for-5.

Eric Byrnes was moved out of the clean-up spot, in which he'd been lousy, batting .163 (7-for-43) since going 4-for-5 in his first game there. The change produced immediate dividends, as he had two hits, including his 23rd home-run of the year, to provide an insurance run after Clark's bomb. He also stole his 21st base, on the front end of a double-steal, with Stephen Drew taking home on the throw. Drew became the first Diamondbacks player to steal home since Gonzo did it almost seven years ago, on September 25, 1999 at San Francisco.

Somewhat ironic that, earlier this week, I criticized Bob Melvin for using tiny sample sizes to construct his lineup, but it was an even smaller set that got Tony Clark in as a pinch-hitter for the eighth. Though Clark did come into his plate appearance, 6-for-7 with four home runs off Sosa, which does seem to suggest something significant. Clark was modestly vague over the amazing record: "This game is predicated on failure, so you look at your success against a particular pitcher and you know that at any given time that the ball could start bouncing the other way. So you don't dwell on it too much. I'm not planning on trying to figure it out. For whatever reason, I've had some success against a guy that has outstanding stuff. I honestly try not to think about it any more than that."

That helped bail out another shaky outing from Enrique Gonzalez, whose days in the rotation must surely be numbered. Six hits, two walks and five earned runs in five innings - and the home-run served up to Pujols was while EnGon was trying to pitch around Phat Albert. The result boosted his ERA to 5.80, and I would really not be surprised in the slightest, to see his next start given to someone else. The most obvious contender is EdGon, who pitched very well in his spot start, and just had the unfortunate luck to be on the receiving end of a no-hitter by the opposing pitcher. I think he will probably get the chance to show his stuff instead.

The bullpen was its usual mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good would by Cruz and Vizcaino fanning five over two innings of scoreless, one-hit ball. The bad, probably Pena(rio) allowing a run on two hits. And the ugly? Valverde notching his first save since May 24 - but doing it by putting the first two Cardinals' hitters on base, including the tying run. That's not quite the warm, fuzzy feeling of security we wanted to see from him in his opening appearance as Diamondbacks Closer v3.0 [though it's more a new installation of v1.0, I guess...] That ties his career high at 15 saves: in four years in the majors now, he's always had between eight and fifteen.

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Today: Enrique's Farewell?

Thanks to those who popped in for either/both games during my quick absence: Devin, William K, azdb7, suitsmetoATnT, VIII, singaporedbacksfan, icecoldmo and wimb. A surprisingly decent showing from our D'backs this series, taking three out of four from the reigning - and likely repeating - NL Central champions, even if BP still gives us a 0.3% change of a playoff spot. The Cardinals really didn't look all that impressive, and have done nothing to convince me that they'll be able to hold off the Mets in the NLCS.

Hell, on this showing, they might not even be able to hold off the NL West champions in the probable NLDS. That said, the Cardinals are still 20-9 against our division - but even with that, the Central remains a dismal 79-95 overall facing the West this year. No, it's not us who are the "NL Worst" this year: in 2006, that title firmly belongs to the Central, with three of the four lowest records in the league, and one team of six above .500. For AZ, the matchups vs. the East and interleague play are what killed us this year: in those games, we're 14-30. Against the NL West and Central, 54-45.

Heroes and Zeroes
Series 45: vs Cardinals, at home

Webb: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 5 K, 0 ER
Luis Gonzalez: 9-for-15, 15 total bases
Hernandez: 7 IP, 2 H, 4 BB. 1 K, 1 ER
-----------------------------
Tracy: 3-for-15, 0 BB, 2 K
Byrnes: 3-for-17, 0 BB, 2 K
Enrique Gonzalez: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 4 K, 5 ER

Webb came back to form with a vengeance, pitching a complete game shutout, as noted above. It was a classic performance which hopefully signals his return to form and a strength down the stretch that is acknowledged by voters. Gonzalez, starting what could be the penultimate home stand of his career, had an excellent series, moving further up the all-time doubles list, and Livan Hernandez gave us a very solid outing - more of the same, would certainly enhance his value for next year, as our pencilled-in #3 starter. Quentin gets an honourary mention, going 5-for-10.

Not an enormous amount to criticize: minor slaps on the wrist to Julio and Pena, but the bullpen allowed two runs in nine innings of work, which is good enough. Tracy is clearly not going to have the monster September he did last season, though did hit a homer. Byrnes seemed almost relieved to be out of the clean-up spot, having failed there, like just about everyone else we've tried. This weakness is partly why rumours are circulating surrounding our interest in a slugging left-fielder like Lee, though as with the rotation, I think any such move is more likely to be through a trade than a free-agent acquisition. Oh, and EnGon ran his sequence of non-quality starts to five. Is he fatigued? He certainly seems a long way from the man who allowed four earned runs over his first 22 innings of work.

As noted by William K, Tucson and Missoula both moved on to the next round of their minor-league playoff series, so congratulations to them. The Sidewinders won the Pacific Conference title, after a 10-8 victory over the Bees on Saturday in Salt Lake, but had to withstand a furious comeback after taking a 10-0 lead in the second. Starter Adam Bass allowed seven runs in 4.1 innings, with Bill Murphy getting his second win for 1.2 innings of one-run ball, while Bill White got the save. Robby Hammock drove in four runs, including a bases-clearing double during the seven-run second. The Sidewinders open the PCL Championship Series at home against the Round Rock Express beginning at Tucson Electric Park tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, the Missoula Ospreys completed their first series with an easy victory, 10-2, over the Billings Mustangs. They scored four times in the first inning, and were 8-1 up after four frames. Starter Jordan Norberto pitched four innings of one-run ball, totals matched by Hector Ambriz in relief, who got the win - all told, the Mustangs managed only five hits while Missoula's pitchers fanned nine, giving them 25 K's over the two games. Left-fielder Daniel Perales drove in three, while intriguingly-named first-baseman Shea McFeely had two RBI. Missoula will now face Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League championship.

And with that, I'd better get on. Still got a hell of a lot of stuff to do; it's amazing how it all catches up on you! Haven't even looked at the Fantasy Baseball, so don't know how it went. Not optimistic for my team though... :-(