Seven innings, one run.
For the past two months, that mantra has bounced off the walls of Zac Gallen’s mind in an endless echo. In mid-July, as the season paused for the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks starter had looked upon his ERA in disappointment. In 17 starts, he carried a mark of 3.56, a number far below the right-hander’s own exacting standards. He needed a stretch of dominance. Every night, he decided, he needed to go seven innings and give up one run.
He’d done the math. Following that prescription over his final 14 starts, he’d finish the season with a 2.39 ERA. He didn’t want to allow any runs, of course, but his first few years in the big leagues had taught Gallen the difference between striving for perfection and expecting it. But seven innings and one run, that was digestible. It was manageable. It was not completely and entirely impossible.
The key to the seventh-longest scoreless streak in major-league history, it turns out, is seven innings and one run.
As the 2022 season nears a close, Gallen is shockingly close to accomplishing his midseason goal. He has allowed just nine runs in 11 second-half starts. He’s slashed his ERA by more than a run, to 2.52. Though he’s averaged just more than 6 1/3 innings per turn, he has completed seven innings six times, all of them shutout efforts. Over the course of 44 1/3 innings, a six-start span from early August to early September, he didn’t allow a single opposing player to cross home plate. The Rockies ended that streak earlier this month with a few cheap singles. Gallen still struck out 11 that day.
Seven innings, one run. Seven innings, one run. That voice in Gallen’s head hasn’t faded, but now, with so few starts left to make his case, he can’t help but turn his eyes toward a larger goal. Two years ago, near the end of the shortened 2020 campaign, a couple of rough starts dropped him out of serious contention for the Cy Young Award. He finished ninth in the voting that year and the next spring, he raised his aim. “I don’t really want to finish lower than ninth in the Cy Young,” he said upon arriving at camp. That year, due to injuries and a subpar 4.30 ERA, he didn’t finish in the voting at all.
That stung, but Gallen is determined for this season to be different. So far, it certainly has been. Though Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara is the likely frontrunner for the National League award, Gallen leads the NL in WHIP (0.921) and batting average against (.185). His ERA ranks fourth, his strikeout rate is fifth and his WAR is seventh or eighth, depending on the calculation one consults. His scoreless streak was the second-longest since 1988. “I think he’ll get votes this year,” says Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom. “I hope he gets a lot of them.”
Strom has made it his mission to help Gallen achieve that goal. (His old Astros colleagues, as he is fond of saying, tell him he should be fired if Gallen doesn’t.) Strom has coached some of the best, including Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, but Gallen is unique in Strom’s estimation. “It’s kind of like a decathlete,” the coach says. “He can do a lot of things.” Other pupils have fired better fastballs and better curves, deadlier sliders and nastier changeups. “But I’ve never had anybody,” he says, “with the whole package like that.”
But Strom has seen this kind of drive. It burns behind the eyes of all the greats. When Gallen declared that a ninth-place Cy Young Award finish was eight places below his target — and said so before pitching a full season in the major leagues — some took it as bravado. When he struggled for much of the ensuing season, some viewed it as comeuppance. But not Strom and not the Diamondbacks’ right-hander. That’s not braggadocio but white-hot ambition. And last year wasn’t karma as much as a necessary lesson. Through struggle is forged greatness.