D-backs on surprising roll

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:32 AM ET

Who saw this coming?

In 2009, the Arizona Diamondbacks lost 92 games. Last year, they lost 92.

So, when the Snakes came out of the gate in April this year at 11-15, well it looked a lot like the same old stuff.

And then came May.

Arizona won 19 games in May, the best month in team history, and became the first team since 1900 to overcome a 61/2-game deficit in April to lead a division in May.

Okay, so it's still only May and a long way to October, but for a franchise that hasn't had much to cheer about lately, this is big stuff.

"You show up and play your tail off," manager Kirk Gibson said. "When we were on the other end of this, that's what we did. We just happen to be on a little bit of a roll right now. We understand it's fortunate, it's unlikely and it doesn't happen very often. People wouldn't pick us to have done it. That's fine.

"But the pressure today to come out and play the way we have been playing is there. Every day when you come out, you have to answer the bell. We aim to play to the last pitch."

The Diamondbacks won in every way possible last month. They came from behind 11 times -- once overcoming a six-run deficit against Houston. And when they got the lead, they were unshakeable, 13-for-13 in saves.

They won on the road -- currently on a six-game away win streak -- and they dominated in their own park, going 10-3. They closed out May on a 15-3 run.

Closer J.J. Putz was named the NL's best reliever in May.

"He earned it, obviously," Gibson said. "He's been real effective for us. He gave up his first lead (June 1 against the Florida Marlins) and we were able to have some good fortune to pick him up. But beyond what he's done on the field, (he means a lot) to not only the bullpen, but the pitching staff and the whole team."

The D-Backs play 14 of 27 games at home in June, and the schedule seems to get a little easier with a visit from Washington before a road trip to Pittsburgh and slumping Florida next week. They have only one NL West series, a three-gamer against San Francisco, before getting into the meat of interleague with four series against the AL Central beginning June 17. The interleague play features relative unknowns -- home series against the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland and trips to Kansas City and Detroit. The D-Backs have not played the White Sox, who are below .500, or the surprising Indians, since 2005.

Rookie dilemma

The Seattle Mariners could find themselves in a difficult spot later this season with their sensational young starter Michael Pineda. The 22-year-old has never thrown 140 innings in any season, at any level. In the first two months of this year, he's halfway there, at 70 innings already. In the process, he's been one of the best pitchers in the league, with six wins and an ERA of 2.42.

The Blue Jays, like many teams, don't want their young starters to increase their workload by more than about 20% from year to year.

With Seattle right in the mix in a four-team division race, can they afford to back off their rookie phenom? This will bear watching.

Short hops

Runs per game dropped to 8.29 in May from 8.58 in April, starters' ERAs dropped to 3.85 (4.06 in April) and shutouts rose to 61 (from 52 in April). Home runs per game are down to 1.73. League-wide, the numbers through May are the lowest in many years. Batting average (.252) is the lowest since 1989, runs per game (.843) is the lowest since 1992 and ERA (.385) is the lowest since 1992 ... In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates won 17 road games. They have already matched that total in 2011, winning their 17th on Thursday. ... Tampa's Jeremy Hellickson was the AL pitcher of the month, edging Josh Beckett of Boston. ... Jays triple-A farmhand and former Orioles pitcher Adam Loewen is now hitting .317, with eight homers and 38 RBIs and an OPS of .951 as he bids to make it back to the big leagues as a hitter.

Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente died more than 38 years ago, but he remains the quintessential Pittsburgh Pirate, bigger than life.

For current Pirate Neil Walker, Clemente represent life itself.

Walker, Pittsburgh's second baseman in his second full season in the big leagues, knows he wouldn't even be alive if not for Roberto Clemente.

On the night of Dec. 31, 1972, Walker's father Tom, who pitched in the majors for six years, was helping Clemente, his winter league teammate, load a plane in San Juan, Puerto Rico with relief supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

Walker was intending to fly with Clemente to Nicaragua to deliver the aid. Just before the plane was to take off, Clemente approached Walker and urged him to stay behind and enjoy the New Year's Eve party.

Moments later, with Clemente and four others, but not Tom Walker, on board, the plane took off and burst into flames, killing them all.

Neil Walker was born 13 years later.

"I owe everything in my career, really, my whole life to Roberto Clemente," Walker told USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "If not for him, I wouldn't be here today. I'd sure love to make him proud now."

Cousins and Posey

Florida Marlins' Scott Cousins can scratch Brian Sabean off his Christmas card list.

Sabean, the GM of the San Francisco Giants, went on KNBR radio this week and tore a strip off Cousins for his decision to barrel into catcher Buster Posey, breaking his leg in a home plate collision.

"If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we'll all be happy," Sabean said,

Because Posey was off to the left of the plate, Cousins had a path to the plate but elected to take out the catcher instead of sliding to the outside of the plate.

"In no way, shape or form was he blocking the plate," Sabean said. "He was just reacting to the throw and trying to get back to make a tag. If you listen to (Cousins') comments after the fact, he pretty much decided -- and it was premeditated -- that, if he got a chance, he was going to blow up the catcher to dislodge the ball," Sabean said. "And if you watch frame by frame from different angles, he does not take the path to the plate to try to score. He goes after Buster, right shoulder on right shoulder, and to me, that's malicious."

Sabean also hinted at retribution.

"We'll have a long memory. You can't be that out-and-out overly aggressive," he said. "I'll put it as politically as I can state it: There's no love lost and there shouldn't be."

Dice-K

After all the hype, all the miscommunication, all the mystery, Daisuke Matsuzaka turned out to be a $100-million disappointment for the Red Sox.

Turns out he didn't have a "better way." He's just as mortal and fallable and twice as obstinant as the next guy. Was there ever a ball player who arrived in the big leagues with more fanfare? Maybe that's not his fault but he never discouraged any of the Japanese superhero hype.

Matsuzaka will probably pitch again after recovering from Tommy John surgery, but it probably won't be for Boston. They spent $51 million US just for the right to sign him to a $52-million contract. His first two seasons, he went a combined 33-15 but the next three years, including this one, he's a combined 16-15 with 250 innings on the books for $26 million. They still owe him $10 million for 2012 but insurance will probably pay for that.

Stripped of all the fantasy, Matsuzaka was good, but not great, and never the front of the rotation guy Boston thought it was getting. The rest of the myth just got lost in translation.

Hurting Twins

As if life wasn't miserable enough for the Minnesota Twins already, two more key offensive players went on the disabled list this week. Jim Thome has a quad injury and Jason Kubel a sprained ankle. They became the 12th and 13th players sent to the DL by the Twins this season.

Already owners of the worst record in baseball, Minnesota just can't catch a break. Just about every A-list star on the team has visited the DL and some of them are still there. Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, highly touted Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and now Thome and Kubel, two of the players who have been the glue to keep the team from flying completely apart, have been afflicted.

"I don't even count any more," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Injuries happen in this game. Unfortunately, we've had quite a few. Right now we're looking for bench help. I lost two left-handed hitters today. Some of these kids are not ready to come up here and sit on the bench. There might be somebody in triple-A who might be ready."

The Twins began the weekend 19 games under .500 but they haven't given up. It is, after all, the AL Central.

By June 8, when they finish this road trip, they'll have played 40 of their first 61 games on the road, including 18 in AL East ball parks, where they usually struggle.

"The good news is we've got a lot of home games left, and we have a lot of games in our division," GM Bill Smith said.


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