PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks envisioned a strong start, and solid pitching and four All-Stars helped them make it happen.
By winning 10 of their first 15 games, including early series victories over San Francisco and defending AL champion Cleveland, the D-backs built not only a foundation of belief but also a cushion for the inevitable rough times to come.
It is paying off now.
Losing five out of six games before the All-Star break only meant that the D-backs tied the record for the best start in franchise history, 53-36, rather than set it.
That should put last week into perspective.
The D-backs will open the post-break season with the third-best record in the major leagues behind Houston and the Dodgers, and they are 9.5 games ahead of the defending World Seres-champion Cubs and St. Louis in the wild card standings. Mathematically, the D-backs have a better chance of tracking down the Dodgers, who lead them by 7.5 games, than falling out of the wild card race.
That is all the talking down any ledge-sitters should need.
The D-backs ran into the best stretch of pitching they have faced all season in falling to the Dodgers and Cincinnati last week. Dodgers lefties Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood are 22-2, the most productive 1-2 punch in the league.
Cincinnati rolled out a possible star-in-the-making in right-hander Luis Castillo, who hit 98 mph with his fastball and got some bad swings from a very good offensive team with his off-speed stuff. The Reds followed Castillo with Homer Bailey, who appears to be back in form after almost three years of arm trouble.
It is not the first time the D-backs have lost five of six this season.
The other time, on an early-May trip that included stops in Washington and Colorado, they responded by winning 13 of 16 and, in the longer run, 26 of 36.
If the D-backs have shown us anything in the first half, it is they can rise to the occasion.
They have 29 comeback victories and six walk-off wins, and the season opener against San Francisco and Madison Bumgarner provided a glimpse of what was to come. Two-out hits by newcomers Jeff Mathis and Daniel Descalso tied the game in the last of the ninth inning, and Chris Owings won it with a two-out, two-strike hit off new Giants’ closer Mark Melancon.
They D-backs swept Cleveland to end the first week, establishing a trend that has continued with the ascension of the pitching staff as a whole and the starting rotation in particular and a productive, pass-the-baton offense that is led by MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Jake Lamb but hardly stops there.
“The first 10 days of the season kind of validated what direction we were going,” said manager Torey Lovullo, who inherited a roster similar to the one that was 69-93 a year ago.
“Opening day seemed to set a very good tone for us … that 25 people were going to battle every day.”
Lovullo planned to spend the All-Star break in California, to take a short break to reflect, and, in his words, “ask myself what I can do to improve.”
There does not seem to be much. Under Lovullo’s watch, the D-backs are second in the majors in ERA for both starting pitching and for the entire staff, trailing only the Dodgers in both categories. The D-backs are fifth in the NL in runs. If you would rather be ranked higher in one, it is undoubtedly pitching.
“We are exactly where we are at because of the pitching,” Lovullo said. “We all know that starting pitching sets the tone for the day. I felt like we had a lot of really key pieces in place. Zack Greinke, who has shown us once again that he is a true No. 1. How everybody fell in behind him I wasn’t exactly sure. We knew we had some pretty interesting pieces. They’ve gone out there and performed admirably this first half.”
The division leaders and both current wild cards — Colorado is the other — all rank in the top 15 in the major leagues in ERA. The D-backs, Dodgers and Washington have the top three starting rotations in the majors.
The meatier portion of the schedule is upcoming. The D-backs have three more games with Washington, all six in the season series against the Cubs, all four against Houston, nine against the Dodgers and seven against Colorado.
They can attack that schedule with a rotation led by All-Stars Greinke and Robbie Ray, who rank fourth and fifth in the NL in ERA. Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker would rank in the top 25 if they had enough innings to qualify.
Patrick Corbin has made quality starts in four of his last five appearances, and he will bring a 0.00 ERA — 25.2 innings, no runs — into his Saturday start at Atlanta in the second game after the break.
Pitching wins. It’s another reason the D-backs are well-positioned for the rest of the season.