SEATTLE -- As long as the Rangers continue to win games with an opener, they may keep turning to one.
Texas won its third straight game with a reliever pitching the first inning in Tuesday’s 11-4 victory over the Mariners. After Jesse Chavez punched out the side in the first, Adrian Sampson pitched five innings of three-run ball while the Texas bats tagged Seattle starter Marco Gonzales for eight runs (six earned), which pushed the club to 2-9 in games started by opposing southpaws.
The buy-in for using an opener is there, even if there are more questions from the pitchers to manager Chris Woodward's mostly first-year coaching staff. Chavez, as Woodward described, is “old school," but players recognize the value of using one. Texas has opted for an opener in each of Sampson’s last three outings, and the righty has a 2.87 ERA over 15 2/3 innings in those games. Chavez has allowed only two baserunners in his three opener appearances, going scoreless in each.
“My understand is that we're just trying to win a game, and it's working,” Sampson said. “I ask questions and they give me answers, and Woody has always been up front with me about everything, the same with [pitching coach] Julio [Rangel] and [bullpen coach] Oscar [Marin]. We have a lot of good communication and no one is ever caught off guard.”
The Rangers toyed with using an opener last season, but not until Sept. 3, when they were 17 games under .500 and in last place -- and when Woodward was still the Dodgers’ third-base coach.
The tactic, now in its second year and increasingly used across the Majors, has logical backing. There have been more runs scored in the first (2,657) than any other inning in 2019, and the goal is to reach 27 outs as unscathed as possible. Playing favorable matchups and limiting a “starter’s” third time through an opposing lineup, the Rangers say, help them do so.
Entering Tuesday, Sampson had an opposing slash line of .353/.371/.471 the third time through, and the Mariners went 3-for-6 against him their third time on Tuesday -- but in the middle of the order, not the top.
“That's a big thing, man, because the numbers show that the first inning is when you're most vulnerable as a starting pitcher, and that's their best hitters,” Woodward said. “We've eliminated that inning, basically, for all of those games.”
Offensively, Tuesday marked a step in the right direction -- specifically given the Rangers’ struggles against lefties -- and one that Woodward had alluded could help spark the club with a lineup full of lefties that likely won’t have many, if any, roster changes in the coming weeks. Tuesday marked the fourth straight game that the Rangers have faced a southpaw starter, and they’ll face another on Wednesday in Wade LeBlanc. The Rangers have five regular lefties in their lineup, as they did Tuesday.
“I think that doesn't hurt, the lefties getting to see the lefties over and over again,” Woodward said. “I think it just gives us a little bit of a comfort factor.”
A seven-run fifth inning featuring 10 batters put the Rangers up 11-0 and the game out of reach. Gonzales was pulled after loading the bases and surrendering a two-run double to Hunter Pence that one-hopped the wall. Mariners reliever Brandon Brennan then struck out Joey Gallo, but allowed three more baserunners to reach, and each scored on a towering, 412-foot homer by Ronald Guzman that reached the second deck in right.
Gallo recorded his 100th career single with a 111.3 mph line drive to right leading off the fourth. With 103 homers, Gallo earlier this season became the first player in MLB history to reach 100 homers before 100 singles. Gallo also struck out thrice, elevating his strikeout rate on the season to 35.3 percent, third-highest in MLB. Gallo was pulled in the bottom of the seventh inning with a sore wrist and he is expected to have a scheduled day off on Wednesday.
Tuesday marked the eighth game that the Rangers scored 11 runs or more. No other team has had more than six such games.