Amid Arizona's Snakebitten Season, Sticky Stuff Crackdown Sparks Tension

Injuries, MLB's sticky substance crackdown and a record losing streak seem to have compounded irritations for pitcher Zac Gallen and the Diamondbacks.
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The Diamondbacks are dead in the water. And while the snakes they’re named for are actually adept swimmers, these D-Backs just keep on sinking.

Arizona’s 23rd consecutive road loss Thursday, a 10-3 loss to the Giants, set the MLB record previously held by the 1943 Philadelphia Athletics and the 1963 New York Mets, who were in their second year of existence. Thursday’s defeat was also Arizona’s 14th straight in all contests, a franchise record.

The D-Backs have been outscored 137-60 over the course of the 23 road losses, which killed their already unlikely postseason hopes. In fact, their FanGraphs playoff odds hit 0.0% back on May 28, 13 games into the streak. They own the worst record in the majors and trail the division-leading Giants by 24.5 games, the largest gap in the league, lagging even behind the woeful Rockies by 8.5 games.

Their last win in front of opposing fans came on April 25, when Madison Bumgarner hurled his unofficial no-hitter over the Braves. Since then, John Means, Wade Miley, Spencer Turnbull and Corey Kluber have thrown official no-nos.

“It’s nothing we’re proud of,” said manager Torey Lovullo after Thursday’s loss. “It’s been an extended period of time. It weighs on you. It’s heavy.”

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen.

Thursday's return of Zac Gallen (partial UCL tear), the team’s best starter, couldn’t stem the tide. In 3.2 innings, he allowed four runs, more than his offense would score over the course of the game.

Gallen had made headlines Wednesday by accusing MLB vice president Michael Hill, architect of the league’s sticky stuff crackdown, for promoting its usage during their time with the Marlins (Hill served as an executive with the team from 2007-20). 

"He was in charge of an organization that was definitely at one point saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to need these things to help you,'" Gallen told reporters. Pressed to elaborate, he said, "You can read between the lines."

Hill was quick to fire back at Gallen's "false accusations" and Gallen's agent, Scott Boras, who in turn invoked the tooth fairy in his unconventional rejoinder.

Gallen may have won in the court of public opinion, as it’s pretty easy for players to presently position themselves as the protagonists against the league, which has discovered many ways to alienate fans since Rob Manfred took over as commissioner. And he may be telling the truth—he wouldn't have anything to gain by lying. 

But really, is it any surprise that the Marlins may have encouraged the use of grip enhancers on Hill's watch? By most reported accounts, this has been happening in every clubhouse to some extent. If you go by what the players have been saying, it was a necessity to stay on an even, sticky playing field. It should be equally unsurprising that Hill would take a harder stance when working for MLB and help try to get the game under control. You can quibble with the midseason rollout or the particulars, but Gallen’s shot across the bow at the man who once traded him felt like something less precise.

It felt like frustration boiling over for a pitcher who’s endured an unforgiving season: a partial UCL tear for him, injuries to many of his teammates (including but not limited to Madison Bumgarner, Carson Kelly, Ketel Marte, Luke Weaver, Joakim Soria, Asdrubal Cabrera, Kole Calhoun and Christian Walker), an endless string of losses away from home and an 11–19 record at the “friendly confines” of Chase Field. Now, on top of all that, if he has been using sticky substances, he has to adjust his routine—the pet peeve of any major league pitcher.

“Obviously, the mood is unhappy,” Gallen said after Thursday’s loss. “Guys are definitely not satisfied with the way we’re playing. I don’t know anybody in their right mind would be.”

It’s just an ugly situation all around in Arizona, which wasn’t supposed to be quite this awful. Projected by FanGraphs in the preseason to win 72 games, they’re on pace to win 46 and lose 116, which would put them four losses away from the all-time record.

There’s no obvious light at the end of the tunnel. In a historic streak that’s included sweeps at the hands of the Marlins and Rockies, there’s no point on the schedule for Arizona to point to and feel overly confident about. A six-game homestand against the Dodgers and Brewers precedes a road trip to San Diego and St. Louis. The team will have to dig itself out of this hole.

The D-Backs can take solace in one old idiom: misery loves company. For all their failings in unfamiliar territory, they don’t possess the league’s worst road record—that belongs to the Rockies (5–27). And they may be pushed out of the history books soon by the Orioles, who hold a 19-game road losing streak of their own after falling to Cleveland on Thursday, 10-3, the same score by which Arizona lost to the Giants. Maybe it’s a sign. Probably not. But this team could use any glimmer of hope it can get.

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