Zac Gallen returned home to Philly a great pitcher — and learned there’s still room to grow

PHILADELPHIA — “Well, listen, I don’t think Aaron Nola was better than my kid,” Stacey Gallen said. And even accounting for bias, that’s high praise coming from her.

Stacey was born in Philadelphia and raised in South Jersey. She grew up going to Veterans Stadium and taking her baseball-crazed boys to Citizens Bank Park. Somehow, Zachary ended up a St. Louis Cardinals fan (they were consistently good!), but even when they were in town and he rooted for the Red Birds, Stacey still cheered for the Phillies.

“Absolutely,” she said. “And I would tease him ‘cause he would root against the Phillies, and I’d be like, ‘You don’t get to root against my team in my house.’”

Zachary was a good kid. He excelled at baseball but didn’t have to be hassled to do his homework, either. He and his older brother both aspired to be big-leaguers, and Stacey encouraged them to pursue those dreams.

“But this one particular day,” she said, recalling a time when he was in seventh grade, “I was like, ‘I’m going to support you no matter what, but you need to have Plan B, and Plan B has to be you keep up with your schoolwork, and you do what you need to do for that.’ And he took out a loose-leaf piece of paper, and he wrote on the paper something along the lines of ‘I will play professional ball.’”

About a decade later, Zac Gallen made his major-league debut for the Marlins against the Cardinals, the team that had drafted him in the third round and (unceremoniously, in his telling) traded him to Miami along with Sandy Alcántara. Of course, his debut — at Busch Stadium of all places — was emotional, but the very next day, the Marlins started a series in Philadelphia.

“It was Chase Utley night,” Gallen’s mom said, “and I can distinctly remember because I was standing up on the wall with my sister and my brother. It was a crazy scene. It was a Friday night, and we were watching the video, and I looked — oh, I’m going to cry.”

She looked, and there was her son, the pro baseball player. And even though he wasn’t pitching that night, seeing him as a bona fide big-leaguer at her home ballpark is enough to give her goosebumps even now, just talking about it.

‘It’s got to be accountability’

That was 2019. Gallen made just seven starts for Miami before he was traded to the Diamondbacks. In Arizona — to very little fanfare relative to the rest of the league — he has flourished. He garnered a smattering of Cy Young consideration in his sophomore season, the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. And last year, buoyed by a record-book-worthy scoreless streak, Gallen truly ascended, finishing the year with a 2.54 ERA across 31 starts and a fifth-place finish in National League Cy Young voting, one spot below Aaron Nola.

(Nothing personal against Nola — he just had the misfortune of receiving slightly more acclaim.)

Recently, while talking to Foul Territory, Gallen revealed that he keeps a screenshot of that Cy Young voting, making note of the writers who he feels snubbed him.

“To me, I took it as, I didn’t pitch well enough to warrant a vote from those people,” Gallen told Yahoo Sports before immediately offering a meta analysis: “That’s the accountable answer.”

Of course, there’s a part of him that believes he did do enough; the voters just didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was the market or the team missing the postseason or his unimposing stature or any of the myriad slights throughout his career, dating to childhood, that Gallen has never forgotten, choosing instead to play with a chip on his shoulder.

“They retain information,” Stacey said diplomatically about Zac and his brother, Jay.

“But I think, ultimately, for me, it’s got to be accountability,” Zac said.

No matter what, he had found something good and didn’t want to lose it. Gallen is smart, savvy and well-studied. He can’t seem to stop himself from offering self-aware asides when he speaks — cringing at cliches and worrying over word choice. He says he is prone to rabbit holes. In the past, that has led to offseasons spent trying to add pitches, aspiring to something he read about or saw someone else throw.

This past winter, however, he focused more on the mental approach, embracing the comfort he has established on the mound.

“I got to a really good spot,” he said. “Let’s just try to reinforce those feels.”

Just a bad outing

On Friday, after the worst start of his career, Gallen wanted to get back to his hotel room to try to figure out what went wrong. Entering the game, he had 2.35 ERA and had thrown at least six innings in seven of his starts in 2023. That day in Pittsburgh, he failed to get out of the fourth, surrendering eight runs (five earned) in 3⅔.

But Pittsburgh is kind of close to Philly, and Gallen had family at the game: Aunt, uncle, cousins all live there, and his mom had flown in.

“All I could think of was I just hope he’s not hurt,” Stacey said of watching him struggle. He wasn’t, and so after the D-backs lost 13-3, the Gallens & Co. went out to eat — at a sports bar showing highlights from the Pirates’ big win.

“They’re talking, and I’m watching the game,” Zac said. “I would rather watch the game and be like, ‘OK, where’d I throw that pitch?’”

Ultimately Gallen determined that he wasn’t tipping his pitches; it was just a bad outing, the kind even the best pitchers have.

From Pittsburgh, the Diamondbacks headed to Philly. Stacey picked her son up from the team hotel — she used to ask him to stay at home, but he explained that the king-sized bed and the bus to the ballpark were nice perks of big-league life — and took him to The Water Ice Factory, a South Jersey staple. He got the margarita flavor before going to surprise his grandparents. When she saw him, his grandmother screamed.

“She figured with the schedule the way that it was they wouldn’t get to see him,” Stacey explained. “But we tried to make sure he sees everybody at some point for a little bit.”

Still, there’s only so much time in a midweek baseball series, so on Wednesday, at least 100 of Gallen’s friends and family came out to see the hometown kid — who, even after that start in Pittsburgh, was the best pitcher in baseball by fWAR — pitch.

In the end, it was an epic, walk-off win — for the Phillies. Gallen was good but not great. He got deep into counts, gave up five hits and two walks, and was pulled with two on and two out in the sixth. Both runners came around to score.

After the game, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo credited Gallen with gutting it out. For his part, Gallen said he felt fine, but his manager thought he looked a little fatigued in that final inning.

“I thought he was getting outside of his delivery a tiny bit and really trying to will his pitches to the right place,” Lovullo said.

When Lovullo went to take Gallen out after 100 pitches, which he considers something of a ceiling, the pitcher didn’t put up a fight. “Typically he does,” Lovullo said. “His line is ‘I’ve been eating this guy’s lunch all day. Let me face him.’ But he didn’t use that one on me today.”

‘I climbed half of the tallest mountain’

Last season’s success left Gallen hungry for recognition, eager to make the media notice what he’s doing in Arizona. But that wasn’t his main takeaway.

“More so infatuated with the guys, like [Max] Scherzer and [Clayton] Kershaw and [Justin] Verlander, who have done it year after year after year,” he said.

He would love to talk to those guys, pick their brains, ask them the burning question: How?

The why he already understands.

“They’d rather go, ‘I climbed half of the tallest mountain,’ as opposed to ‘I’ve summited the second-highest.’ I feel like I would be able to sleep a lot better knowing that and being like, ‘Yeah, I gave it all I had,’” he said. “I think there’s something just cool about that.”

Gallen’s goal is to build a culture of sustained success, make fans proud to root for the team, stay in Phoenix long enough to turn it into a destination for top free agents. One guy can’t do that alone, but if anyone could, it’s one of the Scherzers and Kershaws and Verlanders of the game — the guys who put the team on their back.

“I hate saying that ‘cause it’s very selfish and very naive,” he said. “But in the sense that, maybe the guy who pitched before you had kind of a rough start, and the bullpen was taxed yesterday, you have to go. You gotta get us to at least the eighth inning. And that may mean you grind through seven innings and give up a few runs — you have to be efficient, though.”

To be able to do that reliably is better than any scoreless streak. It means you’re an ace.

Gallen is great — by some metrics the best so far in the still-youngish season. But maybe there’s still some room to grow year after year after year.