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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Early returns show Diamondbacks might be better than division champs

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Chris Young hurt the Giants in the opening series, going 4 for 11 with a homer and four RBI. (AP)  
Chris Young hurt the Giants in the opening series, going 4 for 11 with a homer and four RBI. (AP)  

SAN DIEGO -- Snakeskin boots, anybody?

Good luck.

"We have a good understanding that we've got a target on our backs now," veteran utilityman Geoff Blum said. "We're embracing it."

You think?

The Arizona Diamondbacks aren't just embracing it, they're flaunting it. Taking it right at rivals. Slithering up and biting 'em with forked tongues and a full roster.

It's a little early to be talking about "statement" this or "message" that. But the way the Diamondbacks have begun defense of their 2011 NL West title, it's hard not to notice that they're picking up right where they left off.

They started by edging the Giants in two games by identical 5-4 scores, then came back from a six-run deficit Sunday to win 7-6. Center fielder Chris Young slammed an opening day homer, then ripped a two-run homer in the 11th inning Tuesday to deliver a 4-2 series-opening win here in San Diego.

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When the Diamondbacks finally were beaten by the Padres on Wednesday, they were the lone unbeaten club in the majors.

"Yeah," Young said when asked if he and his mates could see frustration in the Giants over the weekend while the Snakes were opening their season with the three-game sweep. "They're a winning ballclub with a winning mentality.

"Anytime it doesn't go according to plan, it gets to you."

Take it from one who knows. In just five years, Young has signed a multiyear contract (2008), suffered a demotion to the minors (2009) and become an All-Star (2010).

He has clubbed 120 home runs in 789 big-league games while hitting a staggering number of infield popups: 16.9 percent of his batted balls since 2009, easily the highest rate among players in both leagues with at least 1,500 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, he popped up 20.5 percent of the time he made contact in 2011.

That's why, last winter, he overhauled his swing. Working on the advice of hitting coach Don Baylor and with Houston-area batting instructor Sid Holland, who also has tutored Houston natives Michael Bourn, Carl Crawford and Paul Janish (among others), Young raised his bat, instituted a toe tap and closed his hips.

Looking for better rhythm at the plate, his goal was to change the plane of his swing, develop more of a downward path.

"Create a better path to the ball," Young said. "Get more backspin, and hard ground balls.

"It all started last year. I had a lot of popup outs, and it was frustrating for me."

His raw skills continue to tantalize, evidenced by the fact that last year he became the first player in Arizona history to produce a third consecutive season with at least 20 homers and 20 steals.

They also continue to tantalize this year in that, through four games, he was on pace for, ahem, 81 home runs in 2012.

"That'd help our cause," Blum quipped.

Though Young hit only .236 last year to go with his 20 homers and 71 RBI (down from 91 in 2010), Baylor blames it on a thumb injury that Young wouldn't acknowledge.

"He played through it, but his swing path changed," Baylor said.

By season's end, after the Diamondbacks' unexpected NL West title and their heartbreaking Division Series loss to Milwaukee, Young was eager to make changes, and what he did has him on the launching pad for what he hopes could be another big year for both himself and his team.

"He's got a lot of confidence right now," Baylor said. "It's as high as I've seen him."

Both Young, hitting .333 with two homers and six RBI after five games, and the Snakes have it going right now. The Diamondbacks had never, ever started 4-0.

What Young likes, aside from the pure aesthetic of the "0" in the loss column, until Wednesday, is the way the Diamondbacks have won.

"We've been playing great baseball," he said. "I know it's early in the season, but we've been playing quality games. Being behind, and being able to come back. One-run games. Two-run games. It's nice to win those games. It adds to your character."

Under NL Manager of the Year Kirk Gibson, character has become as commonplace as cactus in the desert. Granted, we're just a week into the 2012 season, but the Snakes' 83-47 record since last May 14 is tied with the Brewers for best in the majors.

The biggest questions heading into the year were whether Ian Kennedy (21-4 in 2011) and Daniel Hudson (16-12) could replicate what they did last summer. But with depth in the rotation and general manager Kevin Towers' savvy acquisitions of starter Trevor Cahill (from Oakland in a trade), outfielder Jason Kubel (Minnesota, free agent) and reliever Takashi Saito (Milwaukee, free agent), the Diamondbacks really should be even better than their 94-68 record last summer. Even with shortstop Stephen Drew's fractured ankle still healing.

"From the beginning of last year to the All-Star break, the Giants had our number," said Kennedy of his club losing seven of nine to the Giants during the first half of last season. "There's no lying about that.

"It's nice to start winning this year from the first series."

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