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Spring Postcard: Can the D-backs finish what they started in '08?

1. Dust off the old cliché: It's a 162-game season.No one needs to remind the Diamondbacks that they coughed up their chance for a second NL West title in three years last September after spending 136 days in first place. They finished April with a 20-6 record, 5 1/2 games up, and many were ready to crown them division champs by June.

This season, says manager Bob Melvin, they're trying to keep things in perspective. "You don't tell them, 'OK, guys, let's not get out to a fast start," he explains. "It's maintaining. It's a long season; just because you got off to a good start doesn't mean you're going to finish up well."

Indeed, after coming out of the gates blazing, Arizona had losing records in May, June and August thanks to all kinds of offensive, defensive and pitching breakdowns. In the end, says GM Josh Byrnes, it was a huge learning experience for a team that had the youngest 25-man roster in the bigs last Opening Day.

"Maybe now some of our guys better understand how precious a playoff appearance is than they did eight months ago," Byrnes says. "When you're in first and you're playing well and you're a few games up, maybe it's time to start expanding the lead rather than ease up on the gas."

2. They've got to cut down on their strikeouts.There are plenty of things the D-backs did wrong in '08, but what can't be overlooked is that they fanned 1,287 times, the second-worst mark in the majors. Three key players finished in the top 10 in strikeouts: third baseman Mark Reynolds, center fielder Chris Young and now-departed Adam Dunn (though Dunn only spent 44 games with Arizona).

In order to combat the Ks, hitting coach Rick Schu devised a tracking drill in which hitters would stand in successive batting cages set to different pitches and just watch the ball without swinging. One cage would be, for instance, an off-the-body breaking ball for a strike, the next cage would be another breaking ball just off the plate. The next day Schu would switch the cages up, the goal to simulate what a pitcher might throw deep into the count with runners on base.

"You focus on the flight of the ball and its spin," says Reynolds, who set a major league record with 204 strikeouts last season. "You figure out where the ball starts out when it's going to be a ball or a strike. I think it's helped."

3. The rotation might be even better without Randy Johnson.To fill the Big Unit's sizable shoes, Arizona landed innings-eater Jon Garland for cheap after the righty suffered the worst season of his career during a one-year stay with the Angels. But the D-backs figure that Garland's '08 performance was an aberration, and a shift to the National League should help.

The real excitement is with the No. 5 spot, which probably will fall to 24-year-old phenom Max Scherzer, whom the team thinks is ready for the big-time. The former University of Missouri star was perfect in his major-league debut last April, retiring all 13 batters he faced in relief -- with seven strikeouts. He then struck out 11 in a start last September.

"He throws hard, he locates pretty well and his changeup is pretty nasty," says right-hander Brandon Webb. "You don't really get that from a younger guy. When he's out there, it doesn't look like he thinks; he just takes the ball and throws -- kind of like me." (Yes, that's in fact a compliment from the staff ace.)

The righty Scherzer has been suffering shoulder stiffness during much of camp, which is a bit of a concern. But the D-backs plan to limit his innings to around 170, and Melvin says he'll benefit from favorable matchups at the back end of the rotation.

Melvin hopes that the two oldies-but-goodies in the fold will help mentor this young team. Thirteen-year veteran Tony Clark is back for a fifth go-around in the Valley of the Sun after being reacquired from San Diego last year, and the 36-year-old is happy to be cast as an experienced presence in the clubhouse.

Meanwhile, Arizona brought in the ageless Tom Gordon, who's now with his eighth team at age 41. Flash is still recovering from elbow surgery and probably won't be ready by Opening Day, but he'll be a great anchor and role model for an unsettled bullpen, which features closer Chad Qualls and setup men Jon Rauch and Tony Peña. Both Clark and Gordon say they're approached by younger players for advice almost daily, which is exactly the role the team envisioned for both.

Players were visibly nervous when they returned to the clubhouse after morning workouts last week to find Mexican food in the lunch buffet. Whether it's a good idea to wolf down a plate of chimichangas and refried beans before a game is a whole gastrointestinal debate in itself -- but what alarmed the players was that the offerings were similar to those from the previous week, soon after which at least 15 players, one coach and a number of other clubhouse staff ended up suffering from a stomach virus. The team doesn't think the food was the cause, though, as some of the sick didn't partake of the grub. Eat up, muchachos.

Melvin figures he has more depth and versatility this season: "[Eric] Byrnes is a fourth outfielder, and all four guys will push each other. Conor Jackson can play some first, I can move Chad Tracy to third to get left-handed bats in, and Tony Clark can play first one day." ... The clubhouse is high on Felipe Lopez, brought in to replace Orlando Hudson at second base. Lopez's .385 average for St. Louis from last Aug. 1 until the end of the season was second in the NL only to Manny Ramirez's .396. ... Right fielder Justin Upton says he's ready to step into the superstar role that scouts have predicted. "I learned a few things," he says of his frustrating '08, which included an 0-for-24 slump in May (with 17 strikeouts) and 43 days on the DL during Arizona's mid-summer swoon. Melvin believes that as long as the 21-year-old stays healthy and focused, he has the tools to become one of the best in the game.

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