You’ve heard Torey Lovullo talk about “downhill baseball,” but what does it really mean?
The idea is that, if you score runs early, players can take the stress off themselves and just play naturally. As a byproduct, the offense can feel comfortable and gradually tack on runs throughout the game before handing off the lead to the bullpen.
For Lovullo, it’s a strategy that the second-year Diamondbacks manager preaches. And on Saturday, it was executed to perfection as the club captured a 9-3 win over the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field.
For the second straight game, the Diamondbacks scored five runs in the first inning and never looked back. They coasted down the hill on consecutive nights and now hold a 2-1 lead in the four-game series.
BOX SCORE:Diamondbacks 9, Giants 3
Lovullo said that when the team successfully executes the downhill-baseball philosophy, it allows the players to “go out there and play the game the way they know how.”
“It can be a little bit of a distraction,” Lovullo said of players fixating on things early in a game. “So when I’m talking about downhill baseball, I feel like we’re eliminating a lot of noise and when we do that, things really get pumping in a good direction.”
Outfielder Steven Souza Jr. brought home the first two runs with a two-run triple in the first inning, scoring outfielder David Peralta (who led off with a single) and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (who walked).
Shortstop Nick Ahmed singled in Souza and second baseman Ketel Marte followed that with a first-pitch, two-run homer to make it a five-run inning.
But playing downhill baseball is not something unique to the club’s last two games. The Diamondbacks have been exceptional at scoring early in games.
Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo discusses his team’s win over the Giants on Saturday.
In first innings, Diamondbacks hitters entered play Saturday batting .291 with an .878 OPS. They have now scored 92 runs in the opening frame this season, which is the most in baseball and 25 more than their next-most productive inning (third, 67).
Entering Saturday, they had more hits (132), home runs (21), RBIs (82), walks (62) and total bases (227) in the first inning than in any other frame. The Diamondbacks are 44-18 when they score first.
“It’s about being ready to hit that starting pitcher,” Lovullo said. “Walking up to home plate, equipped with information and combined with execution. It’s a team effort and everybody walks up to home plate ready to go.
“We talk about playing downhill baseball here. When we do and when we score first, our record indicates that we’re a pretty special team.”
Even when you widen the margin to how the Diamondbacks fare in each three-inning segment of a nine-inning game, the club was vastly superior in the first clump, according to statistics reflecting games played through August 3.
Diamondbacks hitters boasted a .261 average in the first three innings of a game, compared to .224 and .221 averages in innings 4-6 and 7-9, respectively. They now have almost as many home runs in the first three innings of games (57) as they do in the final six combined (61).
“It’s just momentum,” Ahmed said of the team’s first-inning success. “I think if you talk to any pitcher, they appreciate it. I think if you score first, you have a much higher percentage to win the game. You just want to come out and attack early, and we’ve been doing a good job of that lately.”
Diamondbacks starter Clay Buchholz breaks down his performance against the Giants on Saturday.
The Diamondbacks added some insurance runs in the fifth when Souza added an RBI double and Ahmed pounded a two-run homer into the left-field bullpen, which was caught by right-hander Brad Ziegler on the fly.
Ahmed later added his second home run of the game and 16th of the season in the eighth inning. It was his second career multi-homer game.
Marte, who hit his 10th homer of the season, became just the fourth player in team history to record at least 10 homers and 10 triples in the same season — joining Steve Finley (twice; 1999, 2003), Stephen Drew (three times; 2008-10) and David Peralta (once; 2015).
Right-hander Clay Buchholz pitched six innings of one-run ball and, despite not having his sharpest stuff, found a way to navigate through the Giants lineup three times. He recorded eight strikeouts and walked two.
Ziegler and left-hander Jake Diekman combined to throw a scoreless seventh inning. Right-hander Matt Andriese navigated the eighth and left-hander Andrew Chafin yielded one run in the ninth.
Lovullo said he feels as though his club could do a better job at adding insurance runs throughout the game, but has been overall pleased with how his club has embraced the philosophy.
“I think the downhill-baseball expression kind of speaks for itself,” Lovullo said. “But it also means being able to tack on runs and not letting your opponent close that gap.
“After the third or fourth inning, it seems like we might go into a pitching mode and then those guys kind of hold onto that lead. I think there’s something to that.”
Richard Morin covers the Coyotes and Diamondbacks for azcentral sports. He can be reached at [email protected] and by phone at 480-316-2493. Follow him on Twitter @ramorin_azc