There’s nothing like a pair of firsts to complement another first.
And, this is also includes a weekend sweep of the San Diego Padres.
First, Diamondbacks’ outfielder Collin Cowgill hit his first major league home run to a create a tie early in the Aug. 28 game with San Diego. Then, Aaron Hill drilled his first home run as a Diamondback to give Arizona a lead they did not relinquish.
Those bombs assisted the D-backs to its six straight victory, a 6-1 win over the Padres before 27,564 at Chase Field. With the Giants losing to Houston in 11 innings Aug. 28, the Diamondbacks increased to their NL West Division lead to four games over San Francisco.
In another first, D-backs right-hander Ian Kennedy became the leading pitcher in the National League with his 17th win of the season. Coming into his latest start against the Padres, Kennedy was tied for the league lead in wins with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. The victory also enabled Kennedy to retain the best winning percentage (.810) among the NL starters.
In going seven innings, Kennedy, now 17-4 and 3.03 ERA, left with a 3-1 lead and made one bad pitch. That was a home run to ex-D-back Orlando Hudson leading off the second, and an early Padre lead. Then, Cowgill tied matters, and Hill’s two run homer put the D-backs in the lead for good.
Otherwise, only three Padres managed to reach second on Kennedy. That was Kyle Blanks in the fourth, after he singled and reached second on an error, two out double from Josh Bartlett in the fifth, and Jesus Guzman, who reached second with a first inning, two-out double off the center field fence.
In limiting the Padres to that one run and six hits, Kennedy walked no hitters for only the second time this season. The other no-walk effort was April 25 when Kennedy shut out the Phillies on three singles, and a 4-0 win.
“I threw the two seamer for strikes, and that was the key,” Kennedy said. “Later, I mixed in the curve and then started to throw that for quality strikes later in the game.”
Then, Kennedy pointed to two elements for success at this point, and for the stretch drive.
“Still healthy and be consistent,” he said. “Those are the two main things, and that’s my goal in preparation and in the game. Healthy and consistent.”
Though this was Kennedy’s show, Hill and Cowgill demonstrated a key theory of most winning teams. That is, contributions, over the course of the season, come from many. As well, manager Kirk Gibson rotates his daily lineup and bullpen to keep players fresh. That way, he has told the media all season, a team can receive maximum results from its individual players.
While Justin Upton, Chris Young and Miguel Montero were a combined 3-for-10 and only one run scored in the Padres win, Cowgill picked up a career-high four hits (4-for-4) in one game, and Hill added three hits with a triple and single to go along with his home run.
“Give credit to (Gibson) for sticking with me,” Cowgill said. “Yeah, I struggled when I first came up, and then said, ‘forget the past,’ and relax. Being in the pennant race is unbelievable and I’ll do everthing I can to help this team win.”
Cowgill entered the Aug. 28 game hitting .137 (7-for-51). After his 4-for-4 afternoon, the 25 year old from Lexington, Ky. lifted his average to .200 and added his first career bomb.
Though the game appeared wrapped up in the Diamondbacks’ half of the eighth inning, they managed to get the bases loaded with two out and a three run lead. The crowd of more than 27,000 rose collectively and responded loudly to the prospect of scoring more.
The crescendo was sustained when Ryan Roberts walked with the bases loaded to drive in his 51st run of the season, and the roar intensified when Hill’s infield single scored Cowgill with the final run of the game. Pundits drew the conclusion this crowd was the loudest and most involved to this point in the season.
In the end, Cowgill identified the essential fuel powering this team at this moment.
“Just relax and just play the game,” he said through a thicket of notebooks and microphones. “This team is really amazing because they never doubt themselves. Really, this is a very special team.”
One day following a line drive that landed just above his right ankle, reliever David Hernandez reported only minor discomfort.
Following treatment and a slight running program Sunday morning Aug. 28, Hernandez reported back to manager Kirk Gibson he was ready if needed. In the clubhouse, he was walking without any notice of pain nor a limp.
“Right now, it’s just soreness,” he said prior to the D-backs home game with San Diego Aug. 28. “If I get the call, I could go today.”
In meeting with reporters prior to the Aug. 28 game, Gibson indicated that he would not use Hernandez in the finale of the three game series against the Padres. Because of the quality of bullpen personnel at the moment, Gibson said he has the luxury of using certain players to compensate for the unavailability of others.
“On the basis of a pure workload, I like to give the bullpen a rest,” Gibson said. “I know I can use several players in certain situations.”
In the 6-1 win Aug. 28, Gibson used Brian Shaw in the eighth, usually Hernandez’s spot, and gave the ball to Zach Duke in the ninth.
Overall, Gibson said the performance of the bullpen has exceeded expectations.
With closer J. J. Putz seven saves from his career best, the efforts of Hernandez as a prime set-up reliever (3-2, 2.65 ERA, 11 saves), Joe Paterson (0-3, 2.64 ERA, one save), and long reliever Micah Owings (6-0, 2.50 ERA), this contingent has enabled the Diamondbacks to remain undefeated (67-0) after leading after eight innings. They are the only team in the majors with that distinction.
“The relievers are well prepared for their roles, and (pitching coach Charles) Nagy has done a great job with the staff,” Gibson added. “They are very efficient in their execution.”
Aside from numbers, Hernandez, along with many in the Diamondbacks clubhouse, are experiencing a pennant race for the first time. At this point, he reports, it’s a great ride.
“You can feel in the energy in the clubhouse,” Hernandez smiled. “It’s great coming to the ball park every day and we’re getting some big crowds. You can feel that from the fans and we feed off of that.”
Major league rosters can expand from its current 25 players to 40 players on September 1, and the Diamondbacks have meetings scheduled this coming week to identify needs and players.
Their top three minor league teams, AAA Reno, AA Mobile, and High A Visalia, all have shots at post-season play, and that will influence who the Diamondbacks bring up on September 1.
“We have teams in the playoffs, and have to be sensitive,” Gibson said. “I don’t like extra guys hanging around here, and want to be efficient with the players who are here.”
Gibson indicated the Diamondbacks will carry three catchers in September, and currently have John McDonald and Roberts as emergency catchers.
The only player named by Gibson Aug. 28 was left-handed reliever Alberto Castillo. Out since mid-season, Castillo (1-0, 2.89 ERA in 12 appearances) will be ready by September 1, according to Gibson. Castillo is scheduled to throw bullpen sessions in the days leading up roster expansion.
Prior to the Aug. 28 game with the Padres at home, Gibson would not identify roster additions other than Castillo.