After more than 10 exhausting days traveling to three cities, the D-backs were oh so close to coming home from their season-opening road trip with a .500 record and some momentum.
They had rallied for two runs in the seventh and eighth innings to go up by two runs on Wednesday in Arlington. It seemed destined to be what manager Torey Lovullo calls a “push win,” meaning it could propel them forward.
And then, just like that, a five-run eighth by the Rangers dealt the D-backs a 7-4 loss and sent Arizona home reeling ahead of a four-game series with the Dodgers that begins on Thursday night. Andrew Chafin yielded a homer to Joey Gallo, and Hector Rondón gave up run-scoring singles to Elvis Andrus and Nick Solak.
“This game can be heart-wrenching at times,” Lovullo said. “These are games that can have a lingering effect, but I know when we get on that plane tonight, there’s always a point in time on these plane trips when there’s a transition and we turn that page. We have to. That’s what we do here in Arizona.”
While the D-backs look to get back on the winning track, their ace, Madison Bumgarner, will look to find some of his lost fastball velocity.
Bumgarner, signed to a five-year free-agent deal during the offseason, did not pitch poorly by any stretch on Opening Day (5 2/3 innings, three runs, four K’s) or on Wednesday, when he struck out five and held the Rangers to two runs over 5 1/3 innings.
But the left-hander made mention during his postgame Zoom session with reporters that he realized he’s been pitching this year with less oomph on his fastball.
“Man, I feel good,” Bumgarner said. “That’s what’s been frustrating. I know the velocity is down a good bit. I’ve had it fluctuate throughout my career, but this is certainly a big drop right now. That’s been frustrating for me, but at the same time, I’ve got to go out there and pitch with what I’ve got.”
Last year, Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball averaged 91.4 mph. In both his starts this year, his four-seamer has averaged 87.9 mph. Those two games tie for the worst of his 12-year career in terms of average four-seam velocity. Previously, Bumgarner had never averaged below 88 mph in a start.
Bumgarner’s velocity was better in Spring Training, and he was asked if the layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic may be part of what is causing the dip.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “It’s obviously different, but I try to do everything I could do to make sure I was going to be ready. I feel ready, I feel good.”
Bumgarner has never relied on an overpowering fastball, and the deception in his three-quarter, sling-like delivery makes it tough for hitters to pick up his pitches.
Even Wednesday, with his velocity down, his fastball still seemed to get on the Rangers’ hitters quicker.
So could he be as effective as he’s been in his career even if the velocity doesn’t return?
“I’d like to think that I can find a way with whatever you give me,” Bumgarner said. “At the same time, to be honest, if I’m throwing 93 mph, which is good for me, that’s still slow in today’s game. I’ve never thrown hard compared to what’s going on, especially nowadays with guys throwing 100 everywhere you turn.
"No matter how hard you throw, the command and placement is obviously more important than other stuff. Obviously, they can get away with a little more, but I’m trying to make pitches every time no matter how hard you throw.”
The D-backs have another four games to play before Bumgarner’s next start, and they come against one of the best teams in the National League. The Dodgers and D-backs met in a pair of exhibition games 10 days ago, when this road trip started and Arizona was outscored, 21-3.
And when Bumgarner starts again Tuesday, it will be against one of the American League’s top teams: the Astros.
In other words, they don’t have a lot of time to sulk about Wednesday’s loss or a 2-4 road trip.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves early to feel like we’ve got to win, win, win, win, win,” first baseman Christian Walker said. “Even though that is the case, I don’t know if that’s the best way to achieve it. For me, looking back on the road trip, it’s finding that middle ground [between having] that sense of urgency but also knowing who we are as a team and knowing what makes us good.”
The D-backs have their home opener Thursday night against the Dodgers beginning at 6:40 p.m. MST, live on MLB.TV. Robbie Ray (0-1) will get the start for Arizona, which is hoping for better results against Los Angeles than it had in a pair of exhibition games 10 days ago. The Dodgers outscored the D-backs 21-3 in those games. In his first start of the year against the Padres, Ray allowed three runs on four hits and three walks while lasting just 3 2/3 innings.