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5 X-factors as Diamondbacks take on Los Angeles Dodgers in NLDS

Jesse Friedman Avatar
October 7, 2023
Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno (14) celebrates his two run home run against Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Bobby Miller (70) during the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium.

LOS ANGELES — The last time the Diamondbacks faced the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, they played arguably their worst series of the season.

The D-backs were hot at the time, too. They were coming off a pivotal series win over the Cincinnati Reds, with whom they competed for a playoff spot up until the last day of the season. They had won five of their last six games.

But when they arrived in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers on Aug. 28, it was as if the very site of Chavez Ravine, 50,000 hostile fans and a star-studded Dodgers lineup had taken the life right out of them.

Despite having both of their best starters, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, throwing in the series, the D-backs were outscored 23-5 and outhit 38-20. They were outclassed in every possible way.

Diamondbacks vs. Dodgers series numbers, Aug. 28-Aug. 30

But now, as Game 1 of the National League Division Series commences at the same venue, they have no other choice but to look past that and hope that something else is in store.

“I know it was a little bit of a grind last time we were here,” manager Torey Lovullo said, “but we’re a totally different team right now. We’re in the big dance. We’ve advanced through the wild card round. And this team feels very good about where they’re at.”

To win the series, numerous Diamondbacks players will have to play well, but there is no question that the ultimate outcome lies more on some shoulders than others.

If the Diamondbacks are indeed going to find their way past the Goliath of the NL West, these five players will all but certainly have to step up.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly pitches at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 29. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

1. Merrill Kelly

There might not be a worse combination among Diamondbacks starting pitchers than Merrill Kelly and Dodger Stadium.

His career numbers against the Dodgers are poor — he has gone 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA in 16 starts – but his career numbers at Dodger Stadium are even worse. In eight starts at Chavez Ravine, he has gone 0-5 with a 7.03 ERA. Dodgers hitters have slashed .340/.398/.566 in those eight games, totaling 177 plate appearances.

Despite those numbers, Kelly told reporters on Friday that he is looking forward to solving the mystery that is succeeding against the Dodgers.

“It would be nice to get my first Dodger win in five years in the playoffs,” Kelly said. “In my mind, I’m well overdue for one.”

Kelly added that he is entering his start on Saturday with the same mindset that he always does: expecting to throw a complete-game shutout.

“I’m as confident as ever,” he said. “If I start thinking about my previous games and how they’ve gone and how bad my numbers are against these guys, I think I lose before I even step on the mound.”

Kelly is slated not only to start Game 1, but would also line up to start a potential Game 4 back at Chase Field should the series require it. If the Diamondbacks are going to win the series, it is all but certainly going to involve Kelly solving his Dodgers mystery, to some degree.

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Andrew Saalfrank pitches against the Chicago Cubs on Sep. 17 at Chase Field. (Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

2. Diamondbacks bullpen

Perhaps it is cheating to claim the entire bullpen as an X-factor, but is anything more surprising about this 2023 Diamondbacks team than the late-season ascension of the bullpen?

With the help of late-season additions such as Paul Sewald, Andrew Saalfrank and Ryan Thompson, this Diamondbacks bullpen seemingly went from one of the team’s biggest weaknesses to one of its biggest strengths over night.

Still, it is important to recognize that one strong month of bullpen performance does not necessarily indicate a full-scale turnaround.

While their results have been excellent, it bears mentioning that Sewald, Saalfrank and Thompson have outperformed their underlying metrics by wide margins since joining the Diamondbacks. These things have a way of balancing out over time.

Here is a look at how their ERAs compared to their FIPs after they joined the team:

Paul Sewald3.575.07
Ryan Thompson0.693.33
Andrew Saalfrank0.003.26
ERA vs. FIP since joining Diamondbacks, 2023

Of course, outperforming one’s FIP by a couple of runs for a month or two does not necessarily inflict some kind of bad luck on future performance. But it does suggest say that these three pitchers, in particular, will have to pitch better moving forward to maintain their success.

Regardless, this Diamondbacks bullpen is hot, and it will need to stay that way to overcome a Dodgers team that has fielded one of the best bullpens in the league all year long.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 28. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

3. Zac Gallen

When the Diamondbacks wrapped up their series against the Brewers in two games, they set themselves up to be able to pitch their two best starters on normal rest in four of the five NLDS games, should it go that far.

Zac Gallen lines up to start Game 2 on Monday as well as a potential Game 5 the following Saturday. Both of those games will take place on the road in Los Angeles.

Gallen has not struggled to the same degree that Kelly has while facing the Dodgers or playing at Dodger Stadium, but his numbers in Los Angeles are still not as tidy as his numbers in most other ballparks.

Overall, Gallen has gone 1-4 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 11 starts against the Dodgers in his career, including an 0-4 record with a 4.29 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in six starts at Dodger Stadium. (Yes, Gallen and Kelly are a combined 1-15 against the Dodgers in their careers and 0-9 at Dodger Stadium.)

For Gallen, much of that damage at Chavez Ravine came in his most recent start there on Aug. 28. In 5 1/3 innings, he gave up six runs on nine hits with three walks, three strikeouts and a career-high four home runs allowed.

Gallen’s only other start at Dodger Stadium this year was not much better. On Opening Day back on March 30, he gave up five runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings and took the loss.

The Diamondbacks can only go as far as Gallen and Kelly can take them in the series. The fact that they have logged a combined one win against the Dodgers in their careers does not bode well.

Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno is greeted by third base coach Tony Perezchica after hitting a two-run home run at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 28. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

4. Gabriel Moreno

It was a scary scene in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series against the Brewers, as an elongated backswing from Brice Turang caught Gabriel Moreno on the top of the helmet.

After a lengthy injury pause, Moreno stayed in the game but was soon after removed shortly thereafter. So far, injury reports on Moreno have been positive.

When asked about Moreno on Friday, Lovullo said that he expects to him play.

“He has not entered the concussion protocol,” Lovullo said. “He has been tested and monitored over the past couple of days and continues to improve and show no symptoms whatsoever.”

As long as that remains the case, it appears that Moreno will be good to go in this series.

Moreno has been critical to the Diamondbacks’ success this year. The team went 57-37 in games he started compared to 27-41 in the games that he did not.

In 380 plate appearances, he slashed .284/.339/.408, including an excellent .311/.382/.496 line after returning from a shoulder injury on Aug. 13.

With left-hander Clayton Kershaw on the mound in Game 1, Moreno is a particularly important part of the D-backs’ offensive attack. He slashed .352/.371/.528 against lefties in the regular season. Depending on how long the series goes, the D-backs could see Kershaw again in Game 4 or Game 5.

Moreno’s health — and performance, if he is healthy — will be crucial in this NLDS series.

Diamondbacks designated hitter Tommy Pham is called out on strikes during Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series in Milwaukee. (Jovanny Hernandez/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

5. Tommy Pham

Since being acquired from the New York Mets on Aug. 1, Tommy Pham has slotted into the critical No. 3 hole in the Diamondbacks lineup. He has gotten some big hits — his walk-off knock against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 21 stands out — but his production has slowed significantly in recent weeks.

After slashing .262/.318/.470 with the Diamondbacks from Aug. 1 through Sep. 19, Pham went just 4-for-31 with no extra-base hits from Sep. 20 through the end of the regular season, a slash line of .129/.237/.129.

In the Diamondbacks’ Wild Card Series matchup with the Brewers, Pham still appeared to be in something of a rut, going 1-for-8 with a single, a walk and three strikeouts. The fact that Pham has continued to hit the No. 3 hole throughout his slump has only magnified those struggles.

Perhaps noncoincidentally, Pham has been dealing with turf toe for the past couple weeks and has been relegated to DH duty as a result. He last played in the field on Sep. 22. It seems possible that the injury has affected not only his ability to play defense, but his ability to hit.

Either way, Pham breaking out of that slump would go a long way toward helping the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers.

Follow Jesse Friedman on X (formerly Twitter)

Top photo: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

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