Gallen has rocky homecoming: 'Never how you want it to go'
PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Italiano Jr. and his father, Nick Sr., have spent years as instructors at the baseball camp at Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, N.J. During several summers in the early 2000s, one camper always sported gear honoring two of his favorite teams: the University of North Carolina and the St. Louis Cardinals. He was better than most of his peers, and he often played up a few age groups to level the playing field.
That camper -- D-backs right-hander Zac Gallen -- went on to star for the baseball team at Eustace, pitch for UNC and get drafted by the Cardinals. It’d be hard to write a better story.
“He's always been fiercely competitive,” Italiano Jr. said of Gallen on Friday at Citizens Bank Park, on hand to watch him pitch from a big league mound. “And he's always been kind of a bulldog.”
Things didn’t follow the same dream script in Gallen’s homecoming, just a few miles from where he grew up in Gibbsboro, N.J. He endured the shortest start of his big league career, allowing six runs (four earned) on seven hits, two of which were home runs, in just 1 2/3 innings in a 7-5 loss to the Phillies. That sunk the D-backs despite a late surge fueled by Edwin Uceta’s 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief and Daulton Varsho’s three RBIs.
“It's never how you want it to go, whether it's here or somewhere else,” Gallen said. “It's kind of a double-edged sword. You don't want to pitch terribly in front of your friends and family, but it's good they're here after the game. It's kind of really what matters at the end of it, that they came out to support whether I go one out or I throw a [complete game].”
Gallen’s list of guests stretched long enough that he joked he played the game for free. Coaches, like the Italianos, were there. Mom and dad, too. Friends from as far back as when Gallen was 7 years old. Two of his closest pals sat in the row behind the visiting dugout.
The biggest spoiler came on a three-run homer to Kyle Schwarber in a five-run second inning. Schwarber spit on three fastballs out of the zone, but filled the count swinging at two changeups. He had frozen for a called third strike on a fastball in the first, but Gallen opted for his changeup as the putaway pitch this time around. It landed a Statcast-projected 391 feet away from home plate.
“Maybe another day I'd get a roll-over,” Gallen said, “but it seemed like he was looking for it and he squared it up.”
There was a scenario in which Gallen escaped that second inning unscathed. In the at-bat prior to Schwarber’s home run, with one out and runners on first and second, Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs knocked a ground ball to second baseman Ketel Marte. It was not hit particularly hard, just 85.5 mph off the bat, but the ball skipped past Marte into the outfield. He said it moved “like a knuckleball.”
Instead of a potential inning-ending double play, four of the next five batters collected hits to end Gallen’s night. It all followed Marte’s eighth error of the season, which leads all MLB second basemen. Marte entered Friday with -5 defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs. All but two of the 64 players to man the position for at least 50 innings this season have recorded more DRS.
D-backs manager Torey Lovullo identified Marte’s first step and the angle at which he attacks the ball as areas for improvement.
“It wasn't a very pretty second inning, giving up the five runs. I don't care how we gave them up," Lovullo said. "We've got to rally around one another. We've got to find a way to eliminate that big crooked number. … Obviously, the big blow was a home run by their leadoff hitter that blew the game open, but I think the damage had been done a little before that. I think we lost a little focus and concentration when a play wasn't made. We've got to figure that out.”
Gallen agreed with Lovullo’s assessment that the misplayed ball by Marte affected his mentality, at least subconsciously. But he wasn’t displeased with his execution of the changeup Schwarber hammered. Rather, it was the home run that “knocked the wind out of the sails.” That’s been a theme of late for a Phillies team that has won eight straight games and gone deep multiple times in each of their last five.
“They're playing hot today,” Gallen said. “When you're a hot team, momentum is the biggest thing. Stuff like that definitely adds to the momentum. It's kind of hard to stop the train once the train starts going. A very good team, and you can't give them extra outs. It's a death sentence.
“But for me, it's just kind of trying to check back in and grind it out and try to keep us in the game. I didn’t do that tonight.”