D-backs eager to prove they can measure up
Tough stretch will be worthy test for club that has relied heavily on depth
PHOENIX -- Summer has arrived in the Valley of the Sun, with daily temperatures now hitting triple digits.
Meanwhile the heat is being turned up on the local baseball team as the D-backs enter a tough stretch in their schedule.
After sweeping a doubleheader against the Rangers, who came into that day with the best record in the American League, the D-backs travel to Texas for two more games. Then after a three-game respite in Chicago against the Cubs, the D-backs have a four-game series in St. Louis against the National League's top team followed by a brief three-game home set against the defending World Series champion Giants before heading back on the road.
Of their next 18 games, 15 will be away from home.
"This is a heck of a stretch we're going into," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said.
"This will be a good test for us," catcher Miguel Montero said. "There's going to be some good matchups."
If you doubt the D-backs can hold their own, consider what they've already overcome this year.
The D-backs woke up Tuesday morning in first place by 1 1/2 games in the NL West. That in and of itself is a nice accomplishment, but considering that they've done it without any help from expected leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and only two weeks worth of production from their most consistent offensive player last year, second baseman Aaron Hill, it becomes even more impressive.
In addition, Montero, who was the team's Opening Day cleanup hitter, is hitting below .200, and until his recent surge at the plate, Martin Prado had also struggled offensively.
Had he known all of that was going to happen, D-backs outfielder Cody Ross was asked, would he have thought his team would be in first place?
"I'd be lying if I said yes," Ross said. "But the thing that we knew going into Spring Training was the depth that we had, and it's a testament to the front office for putting together a great group of players and young talent with guys that could come in and fill in and do great. It's been pretty awesome that we've been able to play through a number of key players being hurt."
Arizona general manager Kevin Towers surprised many when he added Ross to the team's outfield during the offseason, given that the club was already stacked at the position. But Ross' presence has helped offset the loss of Eaton as well as Jason Kubel, who has missed time due to leg issues.
Similarly, the acquisition of reliever Heath Bell has paid big dividends as he has been able to seamlessly step into the closer's role following J.J. Putz's elbow injury.
Outfielder A.J. Pollock, who was expected to start the year in the Minors, has been a big contributor, as has shortstop Didi Gregorius, who the team planned on giving more experience in the Minors this year.
"It's unbelievable, huh?" Montero said. "We're just a team, it's not about one guy, it's a bunch of guys. The guys who have gotten a chance to play have been doing a good job."
Gibson has set the tone by refusing to use injuries as a possible excuse.
"We just look at what's Plan A, Plan B and Plan C," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it -- it is what it is. Eaton we thought he was coming back, he's not coming back, just move right on. We're always looking at, when something happens, what's our Plan B?"
The D-backs have led the league in close games for much of the season, and Gibson believes that the experience of that will help come the pennant stretch and the postseason.
And the manager has also tried to turn the team's tough schedule -- which includes Interleague away games at the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Rangers -- into a positive as well.
And the tough schedule could also eventually work in their favor, Gibson figures, helping to test themselves against top-flight competition.
"You look at all the close games we've played -- the one-run games, the two-run games -- we're certainly comfortable [playing them]," Gibson said. "I think we have a good understanding of what we have to do to win those games, so in the end it should do us well. The same way with the schedule."
For now, the D-backs will focus on trying to get through this tough schedule stress by continuing to utilize their bench as much as possible.
And while they acknowledge it's a challenging stretch, they also are working to keep it in the proper perspective.
"We'll have to be on top of our game," Gibson said. "It's going to create challenges for us. The thing about it is you can't get to where you're hanging onto every game like it's do or die. It's not that way. Just go out and play hard and stay with it; just have to stay even keel and keep your head going forward."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.