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Pitching strategy isn’t to blame for Diamondbacks’ Game 4 loss

Pretty much everything went wrong for Arizona’s arms on Tuesday night, but Torey Lovullo’s hand was forced.

Manager Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks relieves Joe Mantiply in the second inning against the Texas Rangers during Game Four of the World Series at Chase Field on October 31, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After being largely excellent over the first three games of this World Series — the ninth inning of Game 1 notwithstanding — the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitching staff came crashing back to Earth in Game 4 on Tuesday night. Much as he did against the Phillies in the NLCS, Torey Lovullo opted for a bullpen game with Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Brandon Pfaadt unavailable, and the results were disastrous: The Texas Rangers put up five runs in the second and five more in the third en route to an 11-7 win that wasn’t nearly as close as even that final score would suggest.

Going with a full bullpen game — rather than, say, an opener followed by a bulk man — in the World Series is obviously unusual, and it opened Lovullo up to some criticism when it backfired. That criticism got even louder given the performance of righty Ryne Nelson, who started 27 games for Arizona during the regular season and spun 5.1 innings of one-run ball after the game had already been more or less decided. Why, the argument went, didn’t Lovullo just start Nelson, rather than trying to get cute with a patchwork of relievers — many of whom haven’t been consistently high-leverage options all year? Why throw largely anonymous arms against great hitters in the biggest game of the season?

Because, well, that’s largely how this D-backs roster has been built, or at least how it stands at this point in the year. Arizona simply doesn’t have a fourth pitcher that Lovullo could reasonably feel good about facing a lineup multiple times. With Zach Davies, Drey Jameson and Tommy Henry all hurt, Nelson is the only real option — and while he was great in Game 4, but he found himself out of the postseason rotation due to a largely disastrous regular season in which he posted a 5.31 ERA and allowed four or more runs 11 times across those 27 starts. He hadn’t even been particularly effective in the playoffs up until Tuesday night: His previous appearance, in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Phillies, featured three runs on four hits and a walk while recording just two outs.

The D-backs’ bullpen has been great of late, not just in October but over the last few weeks of the regular season, and Lovullo decided — not without justification — that he’d rather takes his chances letting the likes of Kyle Nelson and Luis Frias go all out for a single inning than run the risk of trying to squeeze length out of pitchers who couldn’t be trusted not to cough up a crooked number. (If all you have are uninspiring options, doesn’t it make sense to expose them as little as possible?) No one was complaining when Lovullo executed that same plan to perfection in the NLCS, mixing and matching eight different pitchers in a 6-5 win over the Phillies. At the time it was thought of as a testament to the manager’s magic touch.

The second attempt obviously didn’t work out nearly the way Arizona had planned, but the blame for that falls on GM Mike Hazen, the injury gods or a combination of the two; everyone knew this D-backs team was thin on pitching at the start of the playoffs, and that remains true despite their Cinderella run to the World Series. Arizona shouldn’t be buried just yet; they have Gallen, Kelly and Pfaadt lined up over the next three games, and they’ve been responding with their backs to the wall all month long. If this does wind up being the end of the road for this team, though, the story should be a fun but ultimately flawed roster that eventually ran out of steam after a remarkable run.