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Friday, April 6, 2012
Crucial early series for Giants, D-backs

By David Schoenfield

The Arizona Diamondbacks didn't come flying out of the gate in 2011. After a poor spring training they did win their season opener in extra innings but dropped their next three, and after getting swept by the Mets later in April they were 8-12 after 20 games, already 5.5 games behind the 14-7 Rockies. They had allowed the second-most runs in the National League and appeared to be no better than the 2010 Diamondbacks, a team that lost 97 games.

In May, they traveled to San Francisco and got swept. They lost the next night in Los Angeles. They were 15-22, going nowhere. And then, just like that, the switch flipped. On May 14, Josh Collmenter made his first major league start and pitched six scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over the Dodgers. That kick-started an 18-4 stretch; they were in the race.

So, no, Opening Day or the first week or even the first month isn't a manifesto of your season. But as we all know: Every game is of equal value. We pay more attention to Game No. 162 with a playoff berth on the line, but Game 1 is just as important.

With the NL West projected to be a tight race, the season-opening series between the Giants and Diamondbacks looms as one of the more intriguing ones of the first week. A win in April may decide the race in October. Arizona starter Ian Kennedy acknowledged the game has a lot of hype around it, even for a season opener.

"Because it's against the Giants, at home, it is going to be a little bit more for our players," Kennedy said. "For myself, I will try to keep it at a minimum. For myself, it is that first inning and trying to get through the first. I like pitching nice and cool and calm."

Chris Quick of Bay City Ball, our Giants blog, has five things to look for about the Giants on Opening Day. Most interesting is that Tim Lincecum, after throwing his slider more than ever last season, didn't use the pitch in spring training and apparently won't use it early in the season. So with five things on the Giants, here are five things on the Diamondbacks:

1. Will Ian Kennedy be an ace again?

Ian Kennedy heat map
Ian Kennedy's 2011 heat map versus left-handed batters: Fastballs (left) and changeups.


With his 90 mph fastball, Kennedy is hardly overpowering, but he has such good location and movement he still threw it more than 63 percent of the time last season, 17th-most frequent among major league starters. A key is that he's very effective against lefties with his late-breaking action; in his career he's held lefties to a lower OPS (.665) than righties (.708). On the heat map above, his fastball location is on the left, his changeup on the right. As you can see, he pounds the outside corner.

2. Chris Young batting second

Young didn't hit there all spring and only once last season, but I like this move by Kirk Gibson. The D-backs struggled in 2011 with production from the No. 2 spot, hitting just .223 with a .296 OBP. Young doesn't fit the old-school profile of a No. 2 hitter since he strikes out so much. But the fact is that Aaron Hill, who hit there most of the spring, is the worst hitter in the Arizona lineup. Why bat him second? "I like it the way it is," Gibson told MLB.com. "It's not going to be that way every day. I woke up two days ago, it came to mind, and I stuck with it."

3. Paul Goldschmidt's power

As a rookie, Goldschmidt hit eight home runs in 177 plate appearances. Projected over 600 PAs, that's 27 home runs. He'll hit fifth against Lincecum, against whom he went 5-for-9 with two homers in 2011. Until Goldschmidt took over, first base was another position the Diamondbacks had received poor production from. They ranked 20th in the majors with 21 home runs from first base and 24th in slugging percentage.

4. Jason Kubel in left field

With Kennedy on the mound, outfield defense is vital and was a big reason for Arizona's run prevention a year ago. The Diamondbacks ranked first in the majors with 52 defensive runs saved by their outfield. But Kubel covers nowhere near the ground that Gerardo Parra does, and he spent much of his time with the Twins as their DH.

5. J.J. Putz closing

He was dominant a season ago, holding batters to a .195 average while recording 45 saves. With Putz, the biggest issue has always been his health. He did have one DL stint in 2011 but managed to log 58 innings, his most since 2007.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.