PHOENIX — The Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the Atlanta Braves for a three-game series Monday through Wednesday. They took the first two games of the series with the defending champions. This series started the day after the Diamondbacks finished being swept in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers. What an eventful series it was. It was not only exciting, but it was one the Diamondbacks might be able to look back on as a key moment in the season when all is said and done.
(Author’s Note: I struggled with my health throughout this series, so I could not provide my usual coverage. Now that I’m feeling better, I’m presenting it in this format.)
Game One: Diamondbacks 6, Braves 2
A fifth-inning ejection of manager Torey Lovullo seemed to inspire the Arizona Diamondbacks, who scored three runs the next time they batted to seal a 6–2 victory over the defending champion Atlanta Braves Monday evening at Chase Field. Diamondbacks right fielder Pavin Smith went 1-for-4 with a three-run homer, while second baseman Ketel Marte went 2-for-3 with a single and a fifth-inning two-run double and left fielder David Peralta went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI, and a run scored. Braves third baseman Austin Riley went 1-for-4 with a solo home run.
Braves Strike Early, Diamondbacks Respond
The Braves scored a first-inning run off Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen thanks to two singles and a wild pitch. Designated hitter Ronald Acuña Jr. hit the former and advanced to third on the latter, which came from shortstop Dansby Swanson. A wild pitch plated Acuña and advanced Swanson to second. But a strikeout, flyout, and grounder to second left Swanson stranded, the first of six Braves to be left in scoring position.
The Diamondbacks responded quickly and forcefully in the bottom half off rookie fireballer Spencer Strider, who made his first major league start Monday night. A two-out infield single by Marte and bloop double into shallow left by Peralta brought up Smith, who clobbered a monumental drive deep into the right-field bleachers to make the score 3–1.
“I felt like we were kind of due for one,” Smith said. “We got kind of lucky (on the two hits). Then I got ahead in the count, got a fastball I could hit, and I put a good swing on it.” Strider can pitch over 100 mph, but, according to Smith, the Diamondbacks “were definitely prepared.” Before the game, the Diamondbacks “cranked (the pitching machine) up pretty hard from 50 feet to where it was harder than what he threw. So it made it— it’s kind of like swinging a doughnut, where everything feels lighter. It slowed things down…(and) helped for sure.”
Braves Cut into Lead, Ejection Lights Fire under Diamondbacks
Riley led off the fourth with his dinger, narrowing the gap to 3–2. The Braves threatened to tie the game later in the frame after a two-out walk by second baseman Ozzie Albies and single by right fielder Adam Duvall. Center fielder Michael Harris II hit a bouncer up the middle that could have been trouble, but Gallen reached over his head to glove it on one hop and throw to first for the third out.
The fifth inning saw the fireworks, and they began during the at-bat of Acuña, who led off the inning. On 2–1, Gallen threw a pitch that appeared to be over the outside corner, but plate umpire John Libka ruled it outside for a ball. Gallen, in a rare display, forcefully said “That’s not a ball!” as he received the return throw from catcher Jose Herrera. “If I feel an umpire misses a call, I usually roll my eyes and say ‘Wow,’” Gallen said after the game.
The 3–1 fastball missed low for a clear ball four. Gallen grumbled as he took the return throw from Herrera. Libka pointed at Gallen and headed to the mound, shouting the whole way. Herrera, wanting to keep his pitcher in the game, intervened. The rookie intercepted the arbiter, turning to face him. Lovullo, enraged that Libka pointed at Gallen, charged out of the dugout. With the Diamondbacks already down a catcher, Lovullo could not risk having Herrera get chucked. Consequently, from about 45-50 feet out, Lovullo said “something that I knew would get me ejected,” he said after the game. Libka did exactly that. A furious Lovullo let off steam before leaving the field, pointing toward the mound and toward Libka multiple times.
The Ejection from Multiple Angles
“I was unhappy,” Gallen confessed. “I felt like some pitches were strikes. He (Libka) thought otherwise. That’s really about it.” Gallen did not make any gestures — it was all verbal. “I probably rolled my eyes,” he said. “Tend to do that sometimes. If I feel like an umpire misses a call, I usually roll my eyes and say wow. I didn’t make any gestures; just voiced my displeasure, really.”
The fact that Gallen had his back turned made Libka’s point/yell/approach reaction even more puzzling. “I thought it was over with,” Gallen said, “and then the whole thing started blowing up. I thought he had thrown (Herrera) out, because I turned around. It was like, ‘Alright, it’s over with. Acuña’s walked, it’s the next guy up.’ I turned around, started hearing the crowd cheering, turned (back) around, and saw that Torey got tossed. So, yeah. I was kind of surprised it escalated like that. But I came and thanked Torey for standing up for me, standing up for the guys. I thought that was pretty cool.”
“Things escalated quickly,” Lovullo said, “and I ran out there mad because I didn’t like what I had seen for a couple pitches. The umpires are trying to get every call right. They’re trying to call strikes strikes and balls balls, and it’s a hard job. Sometimes they miss, and sometimes things get a little tense. …at a certain point, I didn’t like the activity of the umpire, and I felt like it was my job to protect my players. Every single day of my career here, I am going to protect the players. That’s what I do every single day. I’ll never back down from that, and I felt like I needed to go do that.”
Like a 15-year Veteran
Herrera took quite a risk by blocking the umpire’s path and talking face-to-face to him in protection of Gallen. That maneuver often leads to an ejection. “It speaks volumes to the way Hosie (Herrera) carries himself,” Gallen said. “He’s been in the big leagues two months now. The guy handles himself like he’s been back there for 15 years. He’s got a calmness to him; he’s got a presence that it’s his pitching staff, and it’s his job to handle that. So I thought that was awesome that (he) was sticking up for me there and was taking it upon himself. Especially as a guy with a couple of months, you probably don’t see that very often. That’s probably coming from a Buster Posey type of guy with 15 years.”
Gallen added that Herrera is “a guy I have a lot of confidence in, throwing to him. That’s another check on the list, where this guy’s in, and this guy cares. He’s in your corner.” But to Herrera, that’s simply what he’s supposed to do. “When I step on the field,” Herrera explained, “I’ll do everything I can to help the team win. That’s my mission. I’m here to serve my pitchers; I’m here to make them comfortable. And I’m here to help them win games. I think this is part of that. Just take care of them. Every pitcher on our team is very important to us. That’s why I take care of my pitchers and step in front of everybody for my pitchers. Same for my teammates.”
Lovullo thought Herrera “did an unbelievable job of trying to disarm the situation. It looked like he was starting to get into a spat. At that point, I felt like…I just needed to get out there.”
Diamondbacks Put Braves Away
After the dust settled, got Swanson to ground into a 6–4 force play. With one out and Swanson now on first, left fielder Marcell Ozuna followed with a liner down the left field line. Peralta got to the ball quickly and launched a howitzer back to the infield. The quick play and strong throw forced Swanson to hold at third. This came up huge when Gallen locked up Riley on a called third strike and fanned first baseman Matt Olson, retiring the side with two stranded in scoring position.
Herrera reached base in the bottom of the fifth with a one-out single. A Varsho walk put Herrera on second. Out came Braves manager Brian Snitker to take the ball from Strider. In came the left-handed Dylan Lee to pitch to the left-handed Josh Rojas. Rojas, the third baseman, hit a grounder to second that had “inning-ending double play” written all over it. Albies threw to Swanson, who stepped on the second-base bag to force Varsho and relayed the ball to first. Olson muffed the throw, keeping the inning alive. With runners now on the corners and two outs, Marte ripped his two-run double off the wall. He came home when Peralta followed with a single, finalizing the score.
Game Two: Diamondbacks 8, Braves 7 (10 innings)
Game Two matched Humberto Castellanos and Charlie Morton of the Diamondbacks and Braves, respectively, in a battle of righties. Morton blinked first, drilling the very first batter, Daulton Varsho, in the bottom of the first. Three batters later, Christian Walker ripped his 13th home run of the year, making the score 2–0.
The Braves chopped the lead in half in the top of the third. Left fielder Adam Duvall singled before Michael Harris II reached on a ground ball force play at second. Acuña blasted a double to center, scoring Harris, and tried to stretch it into a triple. A strong throw by Thomas and relay by Perdomo hosed Acuña at third. The Braves took the lead in the fourth on a leadoff single by Riley and two-run homer by Olson. A hit batsman and two walks in the top of the fifth brought lefty Kyle Nelson to the mound in relief of Castellanos. He was there to pitch to Olson, a fellow lefty, but Olson prevailed, lacing a double to extend the lead to 5–2.
It became a 6–2 game in the top of the sixth, when Albies ripped a double and later scored on a single by Harris. But it could have been worse. J.B. Wendelken entered the game with one on and two out, but he got out of the jam by inducing a 5–4–3 double play off the bat of Acuña.
The Diamondbacks got two back in the bottom of the sixth. A leadoff walk and double to left by Varsho and Rojas, respectively, on base. Pavin Smith and Christian Walker scored them with a sacrifice fly and double to right, respectively. Two innings later, the Diamondbacks clawed to within 6–5 against reliever Will Smith. A pair of singles by Varsho and Rojas, with Varsho’s being a bunt, put runners on first and second for pinch-hitter Jordan Luplow. His slow groundout to short advanced the runners to second and third for Walker. When the count reached 3–1, the Braves intentionally walked him, loading the bases for Peralta. He grounded into a 4–6 force play, scoring Varsho.
It looked daunting for the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth, with longtime nemesis Kenley Jansen taking the hill in a new uniform. Jansen being on the mound did not faze Alek Thomas, who stroked a single before reaching third on a one-out single by Marte. Varsho hit a fly near the line in semi-deep right. Thomas tagged, scoring easily as Acuña’s strong throw was well up the line. Tie game. After Jansen intentionally walked Rojas, putting runners on first and second with two out, Luplow went down on a called third strike.
Braves Regain Lead, but Diamondbacks Ultimately Prevail
Swanson opened the 10th on second as the ghost runner as Mark Melancon took the hill for the Diamondbacks. Melancon has pitched far more effectively with a lead than he has in a tie game. Entering the game, opponents were batting .220 against Melancon while he held a lead and .500 against him in tie games. This game followed suit, as consecutive singles by Ozuna and Riley scored Swanson, making the score 7–6. On the latter hit, a single to right, Ozuna tried to go first-to-third. Luplow, however, was having none of it. He uncorked a javelin toss, nailing Ozuna at third by a few feet. That seemed to quell any momentum the Braves had, as the next two batters went down meekly.
Jackson Stephens took the mound for the Braves in the bottom of the 10th. The wounded Luplow, still nursing a sore foot, was supposed to be the ghost runner. Instead, Lovullo sent out speedy pinch-runner Jake McCarthy. After Walker lined to second, Peralta dumped a single to right-center. McCarthy scored the tying run, drawing a throw in the process, so Peralta alertly took second. That brought up Hummel, who was 0-for-4 at that point. He hit a soft liner to medium right. It landed smack dab on the foul line. When first base umpire Alex Tosi, who was in perfect position to make the call, signaled fair, the jubilation began. Peralta cruised home. Once he touched the plate with the winning run, he sprinted with his teammates to mob Hummel and celebrate the first walk-off hit of his career.
Game Three: Braves 6, Diamondbacks 0
Riley went 2-for-5 with a homer and three RBI, and catcher William Contreras went 3-for-5 with an RBI, avoiding a sweep while leading the Braves to a 6–0 victory over the Diamondbacks Wednesday afternoon.
Diamondbacks starter Madison Bumgarner gutted out a six-inning start, allowing two runs and striking out six despite allowing seven hits, five for extra bases. Two of the hits, and one of the extra-base hits, came in the top of the first. Swanson smacked a one-out single and advanced to second on a follow-up walk by Ozuna. A double by Contreras scored Swanson and moved Ozuna to third, but Bumgarner struck out Olson to prevent further damage.
Two more extra-base hits came in the second, leading to the Braves’ second run. Duvall led off with a double to the left-field corner and scored on a one-out double to center by Harris. But two consecutive groundouts — one to the left side and one to the mound — left Harris stranded.
A two-out double to left by Contreras — his second of the game — became meaningless when Olson struck out. Left fielder Guillermo Heredia belted a one-out double to center in the fourth, but a walk, a flyout, and a strikeout later, Heredia was still on second base. In the fifth and sixth, Bumgarner only allowed one baserunner. That came with two outs in the fifth, and it was a single by Contreras, his third hit of the game.
Kyle Wright Is Terrific
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks could not solve the puzzle known as Kyle Wright. Marte extended his hitting streak to 14 games in the bottom of the first but did not come around to score. A Peralta leadoff walk in the bottom of the second also went for naught due to a strikeout and two fielder’s choice force plays. Rojas legged out an infield single and advanced to second when the errant throw went into the Atlanta dugout with two out in the bottom of the third, but a Marte walk and Walker strikeout left him stranded.
Peralta led off the bottom of the fourth with a double to the gap in right-center. But this golden opportunity also went to waste. When Pavin Smith followed with a grounder to short, Peralta tried to take third. Swanson gunned him down by several feet. After Thomas struck out, Smith advanced to second on a wild pitch. Hager walked, putting two on for Herrera, whose grounder to second ended the inning. Consecutive one-out walks in the bottom of the fifth brought up Walker with an RBI opportunity, but his sharp grounder to third started an inning-ending 5–4–3 double play. The Diamondbacks did not have any more baserunners for the rest of the game.
Noe Ramirez had a tough inning in the seventh, something that has been out of character for him. A pair of singles, bookending a strikeout, preceded Riley’s 15th dinger of the season. Two innings later, Paul Fry’s first outing as a Diamondback had some hiccups, with a walk and two singles loading the bases for Contreras. He struck out, but when Olson followed with another walk, it brought in the Braves’ sixth and final run.
Madison Bumgarner Reflects
This reporter had the first postgame question to Madison Bumgarner, asking what was working for him. Bumgarner chuckled as gave his one-word summary. “Nothing.” He later added, “There were a couple of times it crossed my mind just to turn around, throw it in the gap, and save time. Start the inning off with a runner on second, because that’s what we ended up doing anyway.”
Bumgarner went into more detail. “It was just one of those days where it’s tough. The bullpen (pregame warmup) felt good. That’s another reason I don’t put a whole lot of stock in whether the bullpen’s good or bad, because you don’t know until you step on the mound. Not very good.” He added, “Result-wise, you can appreciate games like this more than a lot of other ones. Because your back’s against the wall the whole time. To still, not feeling your best, find a way to keep your team in it like that…we didn’t win, which is the main goal, but I still feel pretty good about the way I threw.”
Since “stuff, location, everything was pretty bad, at times, anyway,” this was a game that Bumgarner said he needs to write off. “Some days you just don’t feel as good as you did (performed),” he summarized.
What Made Kyle Wright Tough
Christian Walker, one of the most veteran hitters on the team, told reporters what made Wright so tough. “His misses weren’t really over the heart of the plate. There were a bunch of spots missed. It’s not like he was dotting up and pitching where he wanted. His misses would just catch the other edge of the plate. Guys are gonna miss over the course of a start, but you need those misses to be over the heart of the plate. When they’re not, they just provide some sort of damage control.”
Walker agreed with Bumgarner that this was a game to write off rather than take a bigger trend. “One game doesn’t really mean anything,” referring to the long run. “It is what it is. We’d like to go out, score 10, hit the road with a sweep and enjoy the off day. But in the same sense, we took the series and can still start the road trip on a good note for sure.”
Looking Ahead to the Road Trip
That the Diamondbacks will do. It is true that the Braves (25–27 after Thursday’s win over the Colorado Rockies) have not played all that well yet. They also do not have the same roster they had when they won the World Series last season. But the 2021 team also struggled out of the gate. Their record exactly one year ago was 25–28. They fell as far as five games below .500, sporting a 30–35 record on June 16.
This series, for the Diamondbacks, has all the makings of one that can spark a nice run. It can be one that, after the season ends, will be a landmark. Game One saw the team take a spark from their manager sacrificing himself for his pitcher and catcher. The second game had a remarkable comeback that was capped by a rookie notching his first walk-off hit at any level, going all the way back to Little League and travel ball. Game Three, while ending in a comfortable Braves victory, saw the starting pitcher surrender five extra-base hits out of seven total in six innings yet somehow only give up two earned runs.
The Diamondbacks, after having Thursday off, open a three-city trip Friday evening. They will play 10 games in 10 days: three against the Pittsburgh Pirates (22–27), four against the Cincinnati Reds (18–32), and three against the Philadelphia Phillies (22–29). Do not be deceived by the Pirates’ pedestrian record. They are on the heels of a three-game sweep over the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, something that has not happened since 2000, and have won the season series against the Dodgers, 5–1. The Reds have struggled all season, and the reeling Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi hours before this piece went to press.
Probables for the Pirates Series
Friday night will feature Merrill Kelly (3–3, 3.67 ERA) for the Diamondbacks against Pirates right-hander JT Brubaker (0–4, 4.15 ERA). First pitch will be at 4:05 pm Arizona Time. Saturday will feature Zach Davies (2–3, 4.84 ERA) for the Diamondbacks and Pirates righty Roansy Contreras (1–0, 2.55 ERA). First pitch will be at 1:05 pm Arizona Time. Sunday morning at 10:35 Arizona Time, Zac Gallen (4–0, 2.32 ERA) will take the hill for the Diamondbacks against fellow righty Zach Thompson (2–4, 5.18 ERA).
Main Photo Description:
PHOENIX (June 1) — Atlanta Braves left fielder Ozzie Albies digs in for the first pitch of Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Madison Bumgarner is the pitcher, and Jose Herrera is the catcher. The Braves won, 6–0, to avoid a sweep. (Photo by Evan Thompson)
Torey Lovullo, Pavin Smith, Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Zac Gallen, Ronald Acuña Jr., Dansby Swanson, Spencer Strider, Ozzie Albies, Adam Duvall, Michael Harris II, Jose Herrera, Buster Posey, Marcell Ozuna, Brian Snitker, Dylan Lee, Humberto Castellanos, Charlie Morton, Christian Walker, Daulton Varsho, Kyle Nelson, J.B. Wendelken, Will Smith, Jordan Luplow, Kenley Jansen, Alek Thomas, Josh Rojas, Mark Melancon, Jackson Stephens, Jake McCarthy, William Contreras, Madison Bumgarner, Guillermo Heredia, Kyle Wright, Noe Ramirez, Paul Fry, Joe Girardi, Merrill Kelly, JT Brubaker, Zach Davies, Roansy Contreras, Zach Thompson