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Just when the Diamondbacks seem to be turning a corner, they play a series like they did against the New York Mets this week.
After a dramatic comeback win on Monday, the Diamondbacks lost the final three games in a row. They were outscored 28-10 in the series, and they saw their 1 1/2-game lead in the wild card race dissolve in the process.
The Diamondbacks team that showed up in New York looked quite different from the one that took three of four from the Chicago Cubs this past weekend at Wrigley Field. The D-backs followed arguably their highest point of the season with one of their lowest.
A similar story played out just a few weeks ago. After taking three of four against a fellow wild card contender in the Cincinnati Reds from Aug. 24-27 — and briefly gaining sole possession of the second wild card spot in the process — the Diamondbacks were outscored 23-5 in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Breakthrough, followed by letdown. All part of the rollercoaster ride that is the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks — a gingerly cruise from April to June that has turned into one of the wilder rides in the sport since early July.
This visual of the D-backs’ 2023 playoff odds (via FanGraphs) does not fully capture the highs and lows of the team, but it gives a rough idea:
With Thursday’s loss to the Mets, the D-backs reached their latest local minimum. Could another promising surge be waiting around the corner? If recent history is any indication, it is inevitable.
The immediate future does not look especially bright, however. This weekend, the Diamondbacks will take on the Cubs once again, but with a much less favorable slate of pitching matchups than they had at Wrigley Field last week.
Neither Zac Gallen nor Merrill Kelly, the Diamondbacks’ two best starters, will pitch. Meanwhile, a scuffling offense will have to face NL Cy Young frontrunner Justin Steele in the series opener. Kyle Hendricks, who gave Diamondbacks hitters fits in his last start, will pitch on Saturday. Jordan Wicks, a 24-year-old lefty with a sub-2.00 ERA in his first four major league starts, will go for the Cubs on Sunday.
It is hard to imagine a more challenging slate of starting pitchers than what the Diamondbacks will encounter against the Cubs this weekend.
At this point, every series — every game — is pivotal, but this three-game collision course with the Cubs carries even more weight.
The Diamondbacks still only trail the Cubs by 2 1/2 games for the second wild spot in the National League. A sweep would catapult Arizona over Chicago in the standings.
A sweep is, of course, unlikely. Even so, the Diamondbacks need at least one win in the series to lock in a tiebreaker advantage over the Cubs. More on that in a moment.
Regardless of who the Diamondbacks play in any given game the rest of the season, their margin for error is small.
Following Thursday’s loss, they are tied with the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds for the third and final wild card spot in the National League. The Miami Marlins, meanwhile, lurk just half a game behind the rest of the group.
Following this weekend’s three-game series against the Cubs at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks will welcome the Giants to town for a similarly crucial two-game set.
Then, they will leave for their final road trip of the year, playing three-game series against the New York Yankees (74-73) and Chicago White Sox (56-91). The Diamondbacks will then finish the season at home against the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros (83-64).
Of the Diamondbacks’ 14 remaining games, Gallen and Kelly will start six. The other eight will presumably be started by some combination of Brandon Pfaadt, Zach Davies and Ryne Nelson.
Recent history has not been kind to that trio. Pfaadt has a 7.90 ERA and a 1.069 opponent OPS over his past three starts. Davies has a 10.29 ERA over his past two starts. Nelson has a 6.30 ERA in two starts since being recalled from Triple-A Reno.
As shown in New York, even Gallen and Kelly are prone to their own struggles; the D-backs’ two worst losses in New York, in fact, came with their co-aces on the mound.
On Wednesday, Gallen allowed seven runs (six earned) on eight hits over five innings. The D-backs lost, 7-1. On Thursday, Kelly had a similar outing, allowing seven runs on six hits and four walks over five innings. The D-backs lost that one in blowout fashion, 11-1.
For the Diamondbacks to make the postseason, a return to form for Gallen and Kelly is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. The D-backs also need Pfaadt, Davies and Nelson to keep them in games more often than not. They need a recently strong bullpen performance to continue. And, perhaps most importantly, they need to get their offense back on track.
Over their past seven games, the D-backs have hit just .206 as a team with a .259 slugging percentage. They have struggled even more with runners in scoring position, going 9-for-53 (.170 average) in that span.
Also working against the Diamondbacks is the fact that playoff tiebreakers are now based on head-to-head record. The D-backs have already lost their season series with the Reds and Marlins. They are currently 5-6 against the Giants; only a two-game sweep next week would flip that tiebreaker in their favor.
All of this adds up to a relatively bleak playoff outlook for the Snakes — around 30 percent, according to FanGraphs.
If they go 7-7 the rest of the way, they will all but certainly be eliminated. If they go 8-6, they would have a chance; however, if the Reds — who have, by far, the easiest schedule of any wild card contender the rest of the way — also went 8-6, Cincinnati would take the tiebreaker and advance. Even a 9-5 finish, while favorable, would not guarantee a Diamondbacks postseason berth.
Suppose it did, though. Could the Diamondbacks actually go 9-5 the rest of the way after three lifeless days against the Mets? Of course they could. If anything has become apparent about this team over the past few months, it is that, if you are ready to count them out entirely, you probably shouldn’t.
Even so, there is no escaping the fact that the Diamondbacks’ playoff odds were nearly cut in half as a result of losing three straight to the Mets. With several unfavorable pitching matchups coming up, a Diamondbacks team that has struggled recently in nearly all facets of the game and a tiebreaker system that figures to work more against them than for them, Arizona’s path to the postseason has become quite murky.
If their play the rest of the way at all resembles how they looked in New York, they won’t be in the race much longer.
Top photo: Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports