Joe Saunders Shines Again As Diamondbacks Out-slug Pirates

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Riding home runs from Aaron Hill, Chris Young, and Gerardo Parra, the Arizona Diamondbacks downed the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-1 in their first game back at Chase Field after a 3-3 road trip. Joe Saunders once again shone, going seven strong innings and striking out five in picking up his first victory of the season and solidifying his spot in what has become a very talented rotation.

The Diamondbacks once again got things started in the first inning after the Pirates took an early 1-0 lead. Hill, batting in the second spot of the order (ironically a very productive spot for anyone who has been penciled into it) socked a home run into the left field bleachers. He continued his improvement over his early struggles, following up a Sunday win over the Colorado Rockies that saw him knock in two runs and walk twice.

Pirates starter Erik Bedard was showing some solid command, but he let it get away from him in the fourth inning. He walked Paul Goldschmidt with two outs, and then he advanced to third after Jason Kubel skied a fly ball to center that ended up falling for a base hit. A cue shot off the bat of Ryan Roberts to right field later, and scored a run that ultimately was the game winner.

In the sixth inning, Miguel Montero reached base, and Chris Young continued his blazing hot start by knocking a two-run homer just over the 370 sign in left center field. Parra ended the scoring by knocking a pinch-hit blast into the pool in right center field, and the bullpen did the rest, keeping the D’Backs undefeated and home and keeping them within two games of the surging LA Dodgers.

There were two big takeaways from this game, and the obvious place to start is the command that Saunders had exhibited in the early going this season. He has thrown 102 pitches in each of his first two outings, and even though he only has nine strikeouts in his 14 innings, he has done a good job of limiting opportunities for opponents to score by making them hit his pitches. He has allowed quite a few fly balls, but in the less spacious confines of Chase Field on Monday night, he did get more ground ball outs than he had previously in San Diego.

Saunders did not have a fantastic year last year, but it was very solid despite his 12-13 record. He did pitch in 212 innings, and he managed a very respectable 3.69 ERA and improved his WHIP by .15 over his previous campaign with the Angels and D’Backs. But perhaps more important than those figures is this one: zero. That’s how many home runs Saunders has allowed in his first 14 innings of work. This comes a year after he surrendered 29 long balls, so if he can continue his trend of inducing more ground ball outs, it could mean good things not only for his gopher ball allowance, but for his overall performance as well.

The other takeaway was the Diamondbacks’ continued reliance on home runs for offense. Aside from the dinky single by Roberts, Arizona hit three home runs and took full advantage of the fact they were back in a hitter friendly park, not the spacious Petco or the freezing cold and rainy Coors Field. While it may seem like a cause for alarm that the team is relying so much on long balls for offense, there was a good trend that emerged even with the balls hit over the fence.

Obviously, the common notion in baseball is that teams that live by the home run by die the home run. It is just as easy to jack multiple home runs in a single game as it is to go three or four games without one. Teams constantly preach manufacturing runs because they know that skills like stealing bases, moving the runner over, and base hits are what wins games. The long ball may be sexy, but it’s small ball that brings home the bacon more often than not.

The Diamondbacks, however, seem to be a hybrid of those two ideals. Yes, they hit three home runs in tonight’s game, but the balls, especially Young’s, weren’t exactly towering moon shots that would have been home runs anywhere. They were gappers that could have been doubles in San Diego, but they managed to make it over the fence in Phoenix, and even though there is the possibility that they could have been loud outs in other ballparks, the odds are that these balls would have been extra base hits and could have paced an offense just about anywhere.

You couple that ability to hit for extra bases with manager Kirk Gibson’s willingness to have guys be as aggressive as possible on the basepaths, and you can quickly come to the conclusion that this team is more than just some freewheeling bunch of wannabe Jose Cansecos. They can hit for power and precision, and that ability could make them a formidable foe for just about anyone this season.

For now, the team will play another 6:40pm tilt tomorrow against Pittsburgh, with Jeff Karstens taking on Ian Kennedy.

Player of the Game: Joe Saunders

Obviously, we have already gone over in great detail what Saunders brought to this game, but it was fairly obvious that he was the most important component in the success tonight for Arizona.

Other Notes:

-How did the Diamondbacks’ fans in Phoenix greet them home after a six game road trip? By filling Chase Field with 17,366 fans. It was the lowest attendance of the season, and while the lower bowl had a nice amount of fans in it, the upper deck was nearly completely empty. It will be interesting to see how many fans show up tomorrow, as Wednesday’s game will almost certainly be a near carbon copy of this one in the attendance department, because of the 12:40pm start time.

-Tim Lincecum of the Giants struggled yet again, losing in San Francisco to Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay on Monday. Jonathan Papelbon picked up his third save of the season in the victory for the Phillies.