How D-backs plan to utilize opener role

May 25th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Steve Gilbert’s D-backs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

It was just before the D-backs left for Los Angeles last Sunday night when manager Torey Lovullo finally decided that he was going to start left-hander against the Dodgers on Monday night in the series opener at Dodger Stadium.

Lovullo called in his coaches and asked them all for their final thoughts regarding a conversation that originated in Spring Training. With the Dodgers having Mookie Betts (right-handed), Shohei Ohtani (left-handed) and Freddie Freeman (left-handed) at the top of their order, Lovullo and the coaches agreed, it made sense to use Mantiply as an opener.

The plan was for Mantiply to pitch to those three batters and then turn things over to right-handed rookie Slade Cecconi. The D-backs could gain a favorable left-on-left matchup on two of the three hitters and Cecconi would have to face the top of the order one fewer times.

The plan worked, sort of, with Mantiply retiring Betts before allowing a bunt single to Ohtani and getting Freeman to hit into a double play.

The problem was, Cecconi wound up giving up six runs in the third inning, including a grand slam to Freeman.

Lovullo and Arizona's baseball operations department were not big fans of using openers, but started to come around on the idea last year when Mantiply did it on three occasions. Two of those three games resulted in D-backs wins.

For Mantiply, it’s a throwback to his college days at Virginia Tech where he was a starter, and his first year in professional baseball for the Tigers where he was in the rotation of their New York-Penn League team.

Since 2014, though, Mantiply had been almost strictly a reliever until last August when the D-backs asked him to serve as an opener against the Rockies.

For him, starting a game as an opener has it’s plusses and minuses.

“The opener kind of thing is nice because you know who you're gonna face,” Mantiply said. “Like you have all the time to like, get ready. It's not like it's a spur of the moment kind of thing.”

That time to prepare is also the downside.

“I don't like the anticipation of starting the game,” Mantiply said. “Like before the game it's definitely more anxiety for me. Maybe if I did it more often it wouldn't be like that.”

When he’s in the bullpen, Mantiply typically starts preparing to go into a game in the fourth inning. He’ll look at where the opposing team is in their lineup, he knows what lefties they have on the bench that he might be called on to face. That’s when the anxiety will begin to build for him.

When he knows he’s going to open a game, however, that anxiety begins a lot earlier. And while he may have more time to study who it is he’s going to face, well all the studying in the world doesn’t make it easier to get out Betts, Ohtani and Freeman.

“Those three guys, I mean this is the first year I’ve faced Ohtani,” Mantiply said. “Mookie and Freddie I feel like I've faced a decent amount, so I kind of have a good idea what I like to do against them. So I don’t really have to look at too much info. It’s really about focusing on executing. Then Shohei is kind of a similar plan as to Freddie. But look, those guys can hit whatever pitch you throw. Whether it’s a breaking ball, a changeup or a fastball, it just has to be executed. You have to execute to those guys or they will make you pay.”

The opener worked in the third game of the series when lefty Brandon Hughes opened for Ryne Nelson.

Don’t be surprised to see the D-backs go with an opener at other times this year if the circumstances line up just right. It has to be the right scheduled starter for that night -- a young pitcher like Cecconi and they have to believe that the opener will give them a favorable matchup against two of the opposition's first three hitters.

For instance, the Dodgers weren’t going to change the order of the first three hitters in their lineup because the D-backs decided to go with Mantiply. Another team that you could see Arizona employ an opener against is the Phillies, who have lefties Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper among their first three hitters.