Diamondbacks are ascending, but NL West paradigm didn’t shift on Opening Day

LOS ANGELES — The 2021 Arizona Diamondbacks won only 52 games, tied for the ignominious status of baseball’s worst team. The 2022 Diamondbacks were 22 wins better, more mediocre than awful. The 2023 Diamondbacks hope to take a similar step forward and qualify for the playoffs.

The Opening Day outcome against the Dodgers on Thursday demonstrated how far the Diamondbacks must still come. Before it began, this looked like a game they could win. They concluded spring training mostly healthy. Their ace, Zac Gallen, can measure up with most, and he had superior stuff to the Dodgers’ Julio Urías, at least at first. 

For the first few innings, the Diamondbacks produced superior contact. And yet the Dodgers won, as they have done 39 times in their past 49 tries against the Diamondbacks.

“The first three innings,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said, “were great.”

The Dodgers won handily, 8-2, merely by wearing out Arizona. In the third inning, Will Smith delivered a game-tying two-run single after smartly declining to swing at a tough cutter. In the fifth, he pushed another RBI single on a 0-2 pitch from Gallen that traveled far outside the strike zone. After Gallen exited, the Dodgers kept tacking on runs against the relievers that replaced him.

By night’s end, it resembled a game the Diamondbacks had no chance of winning. L.A. tripled its hit total and walked five times to their zero. The first three Arizona relievers each surrendered two hits. All three Dodgers relievers supplied spotless relief. 

Except for the pitch clock, shift ban, and Dodger Stadium’s strange new LED lights that debuted Thursday, it looked more like a snapshot snipped from one of the past few seasons than a reflection of the ground the Diamondbacks believe they have made up in the National League West. Maybe they haven’t made up as much as they hoped.

“The Dodgers and Padres are in a different classification, right?” Lovullo asked before the game, mirroring the sentiment the Diamondbacks have consistently voiced about those teams. 

In September, outfielder Jake McCarthy referred to both as a “buzzsaw” that stopped his club’s momentum. Lovullo was demonstrating deference to the achievements Arizona’s two rivals have registered in recent seasons, not making predictions about the upcoming season. 

The Dodgers are a perennial contender, and the Padres ousted them from last year’s postseason and added a host of talent over the offseason. The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs in six seasons.

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Thursday was just one night — one quite short, and a bit weird, night, after one especially long day. The Diamondbacks are used to matinee openers. The game started at 7:10 pm. local time, six hours later than the first pitch the last time these teams started a season here, in 2019. Intermittent rain washed out batting practice, forcing both teams to nix on-field batting practice and allowing nerves to accumulate as the hours stretched on. Before the game, Lovullo said the day was “dragging.”

Both teams had practiced with the pitch clock and new rules throughout spring training, but Thursday represented a new frontier. Gallen acknowledged the pitch clock might have had an effect on the fatigue he felt come the fifth inning. He had no forewarning about the ballpark’s new lighting arrangement that allowed the field to frequently, momentarily, go dark. He said it shocked him. 

“Is that, like, scheduled? Is that a thing that they’re doing?” Gallen asked. “It doesn’t seem like it’d be something that MLB is going to allow.”

Lovullo said the Dodgers had to “be better” about not deploying the lighting scheme while their opponent was fielding, as happened once Thursday. 

“I don’t think anything was done maliciously,” he said. “It’s the first game for everybody.”

The Diamondbacks will have 161 more opportunities to prove themselves, and their supporters correct. Clearly, they intended Thursday’s game as a sort of soft open for potential superstar Corbin Carroll, who batted seventh. Lovullo had hinted to reporters during spring training that he intended to bat Carroll much higher. The lineup might soon look different. 

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noted Thursday that the Diamondbacks’ hitters are young but exceptionally athletic and dynamic. Gallen, he added, was one of baseball’s better pitchers. 

Maybe, over 162, that will be enough.

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Beat a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter at @pedromoura.

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