From UNC to ASG: Zac Gallen gets All-Star Game start

Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen, who played at UNC, smiles during an All-Star Game press conference Monday in Seattle. Gallen is scheduled to be the National League starter for Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. (Lindsey Wasson / AP Photo)

SEATTLE — At some point this season, every major league player has had to answer questions about the impact of the new rules in baseball, including a pitch clock to speed up games.

For Zac Gallen, the answer is a simple one.

“I mean, last year we didn’t have the pitch clock, I didn’t make the All-Star Game,” he said. “This year there was a pitch clock, and I made the All-Star Game. So maybe it helped.”

Clearly something has made a difference for Gallen, who is a leading contender for the National League Cy Young Award as the first half of the season draws to a close. He’s the top pitcher on one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball — the Arizona Diamondbacks, who reached the All-Star Break tied for the National League West division lead.

Gallen leads MLB with 11 wins against just three losses, and his 1.048 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) also tops all of baseball — no surprise, since he lead MLB in that category last year as well. He also ranks in the top 10 in innings, strikeouts, walks per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk ratio, home run rate allowed and fielding independent pitching.

“Our starting pitcher, Zac Gallen, has had an unbelievable year and has earned every bit of it,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who, as manager of the National League All-Star team, got to make the call to put Gallen on the mound to start Tuesday’s All-Star Game, played after press time.

Gallen, who pitched for the University of North Carolina from 2014 to 2016, became the second former Tar Heels pitcher to start the Midsummer Classic, joining Matt Harvey, who struck out three in two shutout innings for the National League while a member of the New York Mets.

Gallen was a brand-new high school graduate, preparing to leave for Carolina, when Harvey made his start. Gallen started 42 of his 44 appearances for the Tar Heels, going 14-13 in three years and striking out 231 batters. He made second-team All-ACC as a sophomore and third-team as a junior before getting drafted by the Cardinals in the third round and signing with the team instead of returning for his senior year.

He never reached the majors with the Cardinals, getting traded, along with 2022 Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara, to the Marlins after the 2017 season. He reached the majors with the Marlins in 2019 and started seven games before he was on the move again, getting traded to Arizona for Jazz Chisholm. He’s blossomed with the Diamondbacks, going 32-22 with a 3.10 ERA in five seasons. Twice he’s finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting and is more than on pace to do it again this season.

The choice to start Gallen was one of the easier ones Thomson has had to make as All-Star manager.

“(Phillies pitching coach) Caleb Cotham and I got together once the original roster was put out, and we just looked at the numbers,” he said. “Zac’s numbers just came off the page for us: 11-3 record, almost a 3.00 ERA, OPS against is .610. The numbers are incredible. So he’s had a great year. Let’s keep him healthy and keep him going.”

Gallen, in his fifth big league season, was just getting over the thrill of making his first All-Star team when he got word that he was getting the ball to start things off.

“It’s been a whirlwind, really,” he said. “I think I found out Wednesday or Thursday morning, (Arizona Diamondbacks manager) Torey (Lovullo) FaceTimed me. So I kind of had to tell white lies for the last few days to my family and stuff like that.”

Gallen was expected to be a bright spot on a team that was still a distance away from contention this season. The Diamondbacks were thought to be too young to compete in a division that features a perennial World Series contender, the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as the free-spending San Diego Padres, who have put together a high-priced, talented roster. For much of the year, however, both teams have been looking up at Arizona.

“We have a great clubhouse,” Gallen said. “I think that makes it easier on us. I think we’re really coming into our identity. But yeah, we played really well. This is awesome. I’m happy to be here to share it with three other (Arizona All-Stars) that we have here. Very deserving. But, yeah, it’s been an awesome first half. See if we can keep it going.”

If things go well, Gallen might find himself on an even bigger stage in October. But for the time being, the former Tar Heel is enjoying his time in the spotlight with the All-Stars.

“It’s been crazy,” he said. “I feel like I’ve worked hard. This is something that I dreamed of as a kid. So for it to come to fruition is everything and more, really.”