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D-backs set to begin tough stretch of play

Twenty games in 20 days starts Tuesday, kicks off with 10-game road trip

WASHINGTON -- The D-backs flew to the nation's capitol following Sunday afternoon's game with the Reds and will enjoy an off-day Monday.

It is the team's second off-day in five days and they better make sure they get some rest, because it will be the last break they get for a while.

Tuesday the D-backs begin a stretch of 20 games in 20 days that will take them right up to the All-Star break.

It starts with a tough 10-game road trip that features three games against the Nationals, three with the Braves and four with the Mets.

While the Nationals have not played up to expectations so far this season, they are still a formidable club and the D-backs are facing their three best pitchers in Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.

The Braves, meanwhile, have been playing well this year and there will be a little extra energy in the ballpark for the series opener when the team retires the jersey of Chipper Jones, who retired after last season.

The Mets have struggled this year, but they've received a boost recently with the promotion of pitcher Zach Wheeler, who has teamed with fellow right-hander Matt Harvey to give the Mets a formidable one-two punch.

"We feel good," outfielder Jason Kubel said. "It'll be a test for us, but we'll go out and try to have a good road trip. We're playing well so hopefully we can continue that."

You can call it the "Humidity Tour" with warm temperatures and high humidity expected, but you can also call it the "Reunion Tour" with all the players the D-backs expect to welcome back during the trip.

Second baseman Aaron Hill, who has been out since mid-April with a small fracture in his left hand will be activated Tuesday. Closer J.J. Putz, out with an elbow injury since early May, could return as soon as Thursday or Friday if his rehab assignment continues to go well.

The D-backs could also get injured infielder Eric Chavez back during the trip and right-hander Ian Kennedy will return from his 10-game suspension Saturday against the Braves.

"We've had a lot of guys go down but at the same time, these guys have been playing great," Hill said. "It was fun to watch all these walk-off hits, it was tough not to be a part of it. It'll be interesting to see what we can do once everybody gets back."

The return of key parts will give manager Kirk Gibson the ability to rest his players. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielder Gerardo Parra have played in 74 of the team's 75 games, while third baseman Martin Prado has seen action in 73.

"If we get everybody back, I'll probably get to the point where I can start rotating guys," Gibson said. "I'm going to have to be a little bit more proactive in getting guys in and out [of the lineup]."

The D-backs have weathered the injuries well to this point. After going 4-2 on the recently-completed homestand with the Marlins and Reds, Arizona sits atop the National League West with a 41-34 record. The Giants and Rockies are tied for second, three games back while the Padres are just 3 1/2 games off the pace.

"It doesn't mean anything at this point," Gibson said. "We want to be in first place at the end of the season. We've been good though."

After the D-backs get done with the road trip they come home to face the Rockies, Dodgers and Brewers before the All-Star break.

Whether the D-backs play well or not during this 20-game stretch there will still be another 73 more games to play.

"I think we're hunkered in for the long haul," Gibson said. "We're not going to panic one way or another."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB.