Real or Not? Diamondbacks primed to bury Dodgers

Corey Seager’s season-ending Tommy John surgery is a devastating loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but don’t expect any sympathy from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

After all, the D-backs lost Taijuan Walker for the season to his own Tommy John surgery, All-Star third baseman Jake Lamb has played just four games, Steven Souza Jr. (pectoral) hasn't played in any and they just lost All-Star Robbie Ray for an extended period due to an oblique strain. They’ve weathered all that to become the first team in 111 years to win their first nine series of the season.

Because of Seager’s injury, the Dodgers’ slow start and the Diamondbacks’ hot start, the four-game series between the teams that kicked off Monday has the feel of an important showdown, especially as an opportunity for Arizona to bury L.A. deep in the mud. Sure enough, in the series opener, A.J. Pollock homered three times in an 8-5 win:

The Diamondbacks extended their early lead in the National League West to eight games over the Dodgers. That’s the furthest the Dodgers have trailed entering May since division play began in 1969. As colleague Bradford Doolittle wrote, “Seager’s injury could hardly be more ill-timed, for so many reasons. As it was, the Dodgers led the majors in one obscure metric: projected WAR currently on the disabled list. Justin Turner, Rich Hill, Tom Koehler, Yasiel Puig, Julio Urias and Logan Forsythe comprised a group that hardly had room for a player of Seager’s stature.”

After Seager’s injury, Doolittle ran the Dodgers through his simulation and projected their win total at 85 -- down from 88 before Seager’s injury. If Chris Taylor doesn’t start hitting, 85 might even be one or two wins too optimistic. At 12-16 and with that long list of injured regulars, the Dodgers clearly are entering panic mode.

Do the Diamondbacks have staying power at the top? Rotation depth was an area of concern at the start of the season, and Matt Koch, their replacement for Walker, had an 8.40 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. Now, they’ll have to dig even deeper to fill in for Ray. Former highly rated prospect Braden Shipley is a 40-man roster option, although he has a 6.26 ERA in five starts at Reno (granted, all numbers there are inflated). Manager Torey Lovullo mentioned reliever T.J. McFarland as a possibility.

One key to Arizona’s 20-8 start has been a bullpen that leads the majors in ERA and has yet to blow a save (at any point in the game), the only team with that type of clean slate. The pen did allow three runs on Monday, but Archie Bradley escaped a jam in the eighth when the lead was still two runs, then Brad Boxberger finished it off for his ninth save.

Pollock’s power -- he’s up to nine home runs -- has helped alleviate the loss of J.D. Martinez. Still, without Lamb, the offense is pretty thin beyond Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt and David Peralta (who left Monday’s game after getting hit on the hand with a pitch). Not to get too far ahead of everything, but Manny Machado would be a nice little trade pickup here.

On Sunday, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed what could be labeled a shot of confidence: “When it’s all said and done, the Dodgers will be at the top of the division.” The Diamondbacks downplayed the comment and instead did their talking on the field. Next up: Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday. Kershaw better make his own kind of statement, at least for the sake of a panicked Dodger Nation.

The best reliever in baseball: That’s a bold statement, but Brewers lefty Josh Hader is making a strong claim to that title at the moment. He closed Milwaukee’s 6-5 win over Cincinnati by pitching the final 2⅔ innings, with all eight outs coming via the strikeout:

In 18 innings, Hader has allowed four hits and has 39 strikeouts against five walks. With two strikes, he has been unhittable: Batters are 0-for-49 with 39 strikeouts. He has struck out 62.9 percent of the batters he has faced; by comparison, in Aroldis Chapman’s best season, he was at 52.5 percent.

The impressive thing about Monday’s outing is that Craig Counsell decided to ride Hader to the finish, letting him throw 37 pitches. While there have been 110 saves of at least eight outs since 2010, almost all of those were three-inning saves in blowouts. Only one of those saves came in a one-run game, when Casey Janssen pitched the final three innings in a 1-0 victory for the Blue Jays in 2011 (although he wasn’t the regular closer that year, as he had just two saves).

Hader has now pitched two innings or more in six of his 11 appearances, including all four of his save chances since replacing the injured Corey Knebel as the closer. That ability to go multiple innings while dominating is what arguably separates him from some of the top closers.

Yes, it’s only one month and he’s on pace for 97 innings -- and 211 strikeouts! -- but only 57 appearances. It’s possible that making fewer appearances and throwing more innings is a more viable usage pattern than 70 appearances and 70 innings. Or maybe Counsell will back off on the usage at some point. Either way, Hader clearly has developed into one of the game’s best late-inning weapons.

Astros stop Yankees’ win streak at nine: The Yankees had outscored opponents 64-18 during their nine-game winning streak, but they ran into a lethal Charlie Morton at Minute Maid Park, as Morton fanned 10 and allowed just two hits in 7⅔ innings in Houston’s 2-1 win.

A key moment came in the eighth inning, when the Yankees scored their only run and had runners at first and second with two outs; but Chris Devenski fanned April MVP Didi Gregorius on 0-2 changeup.

The most important moment, however, might have been during the top of the ninth, as Ken Giles struck out the side. He hit 99 mph four times and ended by getting Aaron Hicks swinging on the good slider he didn’t have last postseason, when he lost his closing job midway through the playoffs.

Giles has had to win back the trust of A.J. Hinch. He might slowly be doing that, as he has reeled off six straight scoreless appearances of one inning and has retired 21 batters in a row. He had just four K’s in nine innings entering Monday night, so the three K’s are another positive sign that he’ll settle back in as the Houston closer.

Pieces of April: One of the big takeaways as we wrap up the first month: There are a lot of bad teams, as eight are on pace for 100 losses. Three of those teams are playing less than .300 baseball -- win-loss records you normally associate with the NBA, not MLB. It means the summer is going to be filled with a lot of meaningless games between terrible teams. My colleague Sam Miller has a solution to this mess: Let everyone in the playoffs!

Hey, read the piece first. And direct all complaints to Sam.