With starters Aaron Sanchez and Logan Webb on the injured list and right-hander Tyler Beede not yet ready to return from a rehab assignment, the Giants filled a hole in their rotation Wednesday by using an “opener.”
The strategy upset many Giants fans when Bruce Bochy first sent reliever Nick Vincent to the mound to open a game in 2019, but Gabe Kapler’s decision to send set-up man Zack Littell out for the first inning against the Rangers was met with little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.
It’s possible baseball fans are more accustomed to seeing teams use openers now than they were two years ago, and it’s also likely that Giants fans are more trusting of the organization’s decision-making process after watching Kapler and his coaching staff lead the club into first place in the National League West.
The Giants ultimately lost Wednesday’s game 4-3 in 11 innings, but the opener strategy worked exactly as the coaching staff drew it up.
Littell threw a scoreless first inning before lefty Sammy Long entered and dazzled with four impressive frames out of the bullpen in his MLB debut. When Long encountered trouble, the Giants turned to a righty in Dominic Leone before using a long reliever, Conner Menez, to pitch the seventh and eighth innings.
Closer Tyler Rogers was unable to preserve a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning, but the Giants limited the Rangers to two hits over the first eight innings as a bullpen that’s taken plenty of criticism was nearly flawless.
Why use an opener when Long, who started five games in the minors this season, is comfortable at the beginning of a game?
The strategy allowed Littell, a former starter in the minors, to face the Rangers’ best hitters at the outset of the game while Long could acclimate to the big leagues against a weaker portion of Texas’ lineup. And with five strikeouts in his first two innings, Long had no trouble settling in.
“I don’t think we could have drawn it up any better for Sammy,” Kapler said. “He was poised, used all of his weapons and was able to execute all of them for strikes. Had great carry on his fastball and I think the line was incredibly impressive for the first time out at the major league level.”
Long has never thrown more than 100 innings in a minor league season, so the Giants kept him on a tight pitch count at the beginning of the year. He wound up throwing 69 pitches Wednesday, but the club hopes to continue stretching him out to appear in longer stints.
Kapler and the Giants’ front office have entertained the idea of inserting Long into the rotation, but pitching him every fifth day behind an opener such as Littell who was clearly comfortable with his role could work well for the rookie pitcher.
The primary challenge the Giants face in using Long as a “bulk innings” pitcher is that he’s not yet ready to go deep into games, so the days he’s slated to pitch in the foreseeable future will also require several other relievers to take down at least one inning.
After the Giants used five relievers behind Alex Wood in Tuesday’s game, Kapler’s club enters a four-game set against the Nationals with a bullpen that’s exhausted.
“I don’t think it’s a secret we burned through our (bullpen) pretty good today,” Kapler said postgame on Wednesday. “We knew that was a risk for today. We knew it was one of the possible outcomes, but we really got strong work from Long and from Menez to give us some length.”
With a tired bullpen, the onus is on starter Anthony DeSclafani, who had an extra day of rest this week, to work deep into Thursday’s game. The rest of the Giants’ rotation may also feel pressure this weekend, but especially Wood who is lined up to pitch on Sunday, which is the day before the next possible “bullpen game” for the Giants.
Aside from relying on Long to work an extra inning or two in future outings, the Giants may consider using Menez, a former starter, in longer stints. The lefty has allowed two baserunners and struck out 10 in 8.0 innings this season and is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his professional career.
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