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The Arizona Diamondbacks' NL title defense is slowed by pitching injuries

Nothing highlights the value of consistent starting pitching better than going without it, and the defending National League champion Arizona Diamondbacks have had to endure that season.

It took less than a month for injuries to temporarily derail their best-laid plans.

The Diamondbacks donated $105 million in the offseason to free-agent left-handers Eduardo Rodriguez and Jordan Montgomery, proven veterans who would add depth to a rotation led by Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, one of the most effective one-two punches in the Netherlands' past Year 2022-23.

Largely due to these two signings, the Diamondbacks' payroll increased to a franchise record $170.9 million.

But Rodriguez hasn't pitched this season, and Kelly joined him on the 60-day injured list on Friday as the team fell to 14-20.

Most recently, Gallen was ruled out of a scheduled start on Sunday after suffering a hamstring injury in his previous start on April 26 in Seattle. Gallen, who finished third in NL CY Young voting a year ago, could make his next start on Tuesday, although it's unclear.

For manager Torey Lovullo, Baseball America's 2023 Manager of the Year, it seemed to be one day of bad news after another.

“It's a very uncomfortable feeling when you're worried about the health of your players,” he said. “I can't help but think something bad is going to happen given the way they left the pitch. This is a feeling of helplessness. I will protect the athletes and I want the athletes to be healthy. This is, so to speak, the space in which I live.

“I don’t want to force (Gallen) into a situation where I feel like we could take a step backwards. I want one of the best pitchers in the National League to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.”

Rodriguez, who signed a four-year, $80 million contract that is expected to pay him $14 million this season, was diagnosed with a lat strain in the final week of spring training after being badly hit in four Cactus League starts had been. He began the season on the 15-day injured list, but experienced shoulder strain during his throwing program and was placed on the 60-day injured list in mid-April.

Kelly was placed on the 60-day injured list after making just four starts – consistent with form, going 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA – before being diagnosed with a severe strain in his right shoulder. Kelly pitched five innings for the Chicago Cubs on April 15, but experienced catching pain before his next scheduled start on April 21.

Kelly's absence is particularly significant. He had a 25-16 record in 63 starts over the last two seasons and was particularly effective when the Diamondbacks reached the World Series, going 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four postseason starts.

He won the first game of a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, won the series-tying Game 6 against Philadelphia in the NLCS, and defeated Texas in Game 2 of the World Series, the only game the Diamondbacks won.

Montgomery, one of the Boras Four's late spring training recruits, has made three starts after going through a throwing program to prepare for the regular season. He was signed on March 29, one day after the start of the regular season, and made his first start on April 19.

The Diamondbacks have also played the first five weeks without closer Paul Sewald, whose acquisition from Seattle at the 2023 trade deadline solidified a questionable bullpen. He recorded 13 saves in the final two months of the regular season and six saves and a win in eight postseason games.

Sewald also started the season on the injured list after suffering an oblique injury at the end of spring training. While his rehab assignment was paused last week because he felt pain during a stint at Triple-A Reno, he is expected to be with the team on a road trip that begins Tuesday in Cincinnati.

Arm injuries are the most unpredictable risk of the occupation, and it seems only the luckiest can avoid them.

The Diamondbacks made a point of playing both Gallen and Kelly slowly in spring training after heavy workloads in 2023, when both recorded career highs in innings pitched.

Gallen was 17-9 with a 3.47 ERA in 201 innings during the regular season and finished the season with 243 2/3 innings pitched. Kelly had 201 2/3 despite missing four regular-season starts while on the injured list with blood clots in his left leg.

Gallen had 39 quality starts during the 2022–23 season, ranking sixth in the majors. Kelly had 36, placing him in 10th place.

The Diamondbacks have filled the rotation with a corps of young high draft picks.

Brandon Pfaadt, who performed well in the 2023 postseason, has made seven starts, one more than Gallen and Tommy Henry. Pfaadt is 1-2 with a 4.61 ERA. Henry was recently traded to Reno after going 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA, and Slade Cecconi is 1-2 with a 4.96 ERA. Henry was a second-round pick in 2019 and Cecconi was a first-rounder in 2020.

Ryne Nelson, who opened the season without Rodriguez as starting number 5, was expected to take over Gallen's start on Sunday. Nelson also missed time. He was hit in the right elbow by a line drive during an April 18 start at San Francisco and will be placed on the injured list for that start.

“We find energy in watching the young players go out and do what they can,” Lovullo said. “That inspires us a lot. We ride with them and that keeps us moving forward.

“How do you deal with that? Process it slowly, minute by minute. I felt bad for the athletes. You just have to fight the right fight and know that everything will be okay.”

Anna Harden

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