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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

D-Backs camp report: Maturing rotation gives batters breathing room

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Many wonder what Ian Kennedy has up his sleves after a 21-4 effort last season. (US Presswire)  
Many wonder what Ian Kennedy has up his sleves after a 21-4 effort last season. (US Presswire)  

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Nobody was hit with pitches last summer in the National League more frequently than Justin Upton.

He was drilled in the arm. The leg. The back. Hip? Yep. You name it.

Poor guy hit the dirt more than a farmer. Ouch! Bruised more than an overripe peach. Ooh!

"Usually, they aim for this area right here," he said, motioning over the upper-body area from his shoulder to his hip.

Fortunately, as the baseballs bounced off of his body, none of them did any significant damage. He played in 159 games and produced MVP numbers (he finished fourth in NL voting). The Diamondbacks shocked everyone by winning the NL West.

There wasn't one beanball in particular that left more of an indelible memory than any others.

"They all hurt the same," Upton said.

And as the Diamondbacks shift their focus this spring to defending their first division title since 2007, those 19 pitches from last summer also push a looming question into 2012:

Are Arizona's pitchers going to have to do more to protect him this summer?

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The other day in Cleveland's camp, Scottsdale resident Albert Belle, of all people, was discussing how intimidating the great 1995 Indians team was; noting that part of what made opponents not want to mess with them was because "we had some brawls. Our pitchers were protecting us."

Belle continued: "Justin Upton was hit [19] times in a year. I'm like, 'No way that would have happened to us. You've got guys like Dennis Martinez and Jose Mesa. ...'"

Another pitcher in the Cleveland rotation that year currently just happens to draw his current paycheck from ... the Diamondbacks. Charles Nagy, who went 16-6 in 29 starts for those '95 Indians, currently works as Arizona's pitching coach.

No, he says flatly when informed of Belle's comments, his pitchers do not need to do more to protect Upton.

"Guys getting hit, it's part of the game," Nagy said. "You get hit, just go to first base. We play the game. We play the game hard."

Around the fringes, his pitchers can't help but hear some of this chatter. That they should do more. That they didn't stand up enough for their slugger.

"It bothers us," starter Daniel Hudson admitted. "But sometimes you've got to look at the situation we were in. We want to protect our guys. But we also were in a playoff push, and most of the time there was not much separation between us and other teams.

"You can't afford guys to get banned for five or six games."

Upton wound up tied for the NL lead in HBP with Washington rookie Danny Espinosa. Carlos Quentin, then of the White Sox, was the only batter in the majors who was hit more. He led the AL with 23.

The man who suffered the bruises does not believe Arizona pitchers are letting him fend for himself. He believes that if things become too blatant, scores will be settled.

"You know what?" Upton said. "Our pitchers, all of them, are very smart guys. They know what not to get caught up in. They've told me they don't necessarily want to go headhunting, that's it's not part of the game.

"But they've also told me, 'If you need protection, trust us.' They don't want the other team to feel like it's OK."

Upton understands that, hitting in the three-hole and producing 31 homers and 88 RBI (as he did in 2011), things are going to happen and that, "to a certain extent, we're not going to ruin our season over guys hitting me."

And Upton is good with that.

"If we're winning ballgames," he said. "Absolutely."

Part of the plunkings, undoubtedly, is circumstance.

"Justin has one of the fastest bats in our league," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "Very few pitchers are going to pitch him away. If you're going to miss with him, you're going to miss in rather than out off the plate."

Other times, it's not so much on the circumstances.

"It's tough to put a number on," Upton said. "I will say that some of them are intentional, and some of them are unintentional.

"It's one of those things you learn to deal with. If I'm going to go out and play the game the way I expect myself to play, those things are going to happen. If I'm going to hit third in the lineup and perform, sometimes teams are going to feel like they need to send a message.

"If that's how they feel they need to play, let 'em play that way. These guys on our team know how to play the game the right way."

Hudson is 24. Josh Collmenter is 26. Ian Kennedy is 27. Mostly, it's a young staff.

Between trying to gain a foothold in the majors while rebounding from a 97-loss season in 2010, the pitchers had their hands full last summer.

But part of the education of an emerging, growing staff is figuring out how to deal with issues like opponents using Upton for target practice.

"I think our young pitchers are educated enough to understand the game," Towers said. "They're bright guys. They have respect for their teammates.

"As front-office guys, and the coaching staff, it's not up to us to alert them to what's going on."

Kennedy, for one, has had conversations with Nagy on the topic. He's young, intelligent and eager to learn. During his breakout season in 2011 -- 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA -- Kennedy would pick Nagy's brain about various aspects of pitching. One thing he poked around about was how much the game has changed since Nagy pitched in the 1990s.

"I asked him, 'Are there more warnings now?'" Kennedy said. "I feel like less guys are doing it because they're getting warned earlier.

"He told me that when he pitched, if somebody hit you, you hit somebody and then it was done. It wasn't a beanball war. You did it and moved on."

Umpires today use their discretion on when to issue warnings. If emotions are running high enough, sometimes they'll warn both clubs after a batter is hit once, which prevents the other pitcher from getting his own shot in without being ejected and facing a five-game suspension.

"If I hit somebody and get a five-game suspension, it hurts our team," Kennedy says. "And if we're in the race ... that's just how it is.

"It's not that I'm thinking selfishly, that I'm not protecting Justin."

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