Rookie Brandon Webb has lifted the Diamondbacks into contention
After taking questions from a reporter about Arizona rookie righthander Brandon Webb last Friday, Diamondbacks catcher Chad Moeller turned to first baseman Lyle Overbay and said, "They used to ask about Randy [ Johnson] and Curt [Schilling]. Now they ask about Brandon."
With several key veterans, including Johnson (injured right knee) and Schilling (broken right hand), having spent more time on the disabled list than on the active roster this season, an unexpected youth movement—call them the Babybacks (chart, right)—has brought Arizona back from a tumultuous start. As recently as June 14 the Diamondbacks were trailing the Giants by 10 games in the NL West, but thanks to a 17-4 run, including a 12-game winning streak that ended last week, Arizona (48-39) was just five games back at week's end. The Diamondbacks had sent more players to the DL (15) than any other team in the majors and had been forced to use a league-high 12 rookies.
The biggest boost has come from the 24-year-old Webb, who in his first major league start on April 27 struck out 10 in seven shutout innings of a 6-1 win over the Mets. Through Sunday he was 5-2, led all major league pitchers with 10 or more starts in ERA (2.04) and was riding a streak of 12 straight quality starts (pitching six or more innings while giving up three runs or fewer), the longest such stretch in the majors this season. It was also the longest run of quality starts to begin a career since the Expos' Steve Rogers had 16 in 1973.
Webb is the rare pitcher who baffles hitters without changing speeds. More than 80% of his pitches are two-seam sinking fastballs that have so much movement that he hasn't had to throw many off-speed pitches. Webb doesn't throw particularly hard—he tops out in the low 90s—but his stuff is nasty. "Big league hitters aren't dumb," says first baseman Mark Grace. "They know what's coming. They still can't touch him."
"Brandon's the whole package: great stuff, great poise, great personality," says Schilling, who has taken Webb under his wing. "He's only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential."
Born and raised in Ashland, Ky., Webb is laid-back—while most pitchers isolate themselves in the hours before starts, Webb mixes with teammates to stay relaxed. "He's a country boy who doesn't know any better," says Moeller. "He doesn't know that he's as special a pitcher as he is." When he takes the mound, however, Webb is all business. Says Schilling, "Underneath that easygoing exterior, he's got a fierce, competitive edge."
In Webb the Diamondbacks have what they've been looking for since Johnson and Schilling were united in 2000: a dominant third starter to complement the best one-two punch in the majors. And with Johnson, Schilling and All-Star second baseman Junior Spivey (left ankle sprain) all scheduled to be back playing by mid-July, Arizona could become the most dangerous team in the NL West.
As the regulars return, most of their replacements will assume backup roles, but not Webb. "I didn't even know who Brandon was before the season," says Grace. "But here he is, one of the main reasons why we've been able to stay in this thing."
Minnesota's Johan Santana
Reliever Moved Into the Rotation