For the first time as a manager, the Texas Rangers’ Chris Woodward employed an opener on the mound Saturday night.
The strategy worked, but it still wasn’t enough to slow down the Houston Astros, who beat the Rangers for the third consecutive night 11-4 at Minute Maid Park.
Long after opener Jesse Chavez had worked a perfect first, “starting pitcher” Drew Smyly left after pitching 4 2/3 innings clinging to a 2-1 lead. Kyle Dowdy was tasked with getting him out of a base-loaded, sixth-inning jam. Smyly had walked them loaded and had two outs against Houston’s No. 9 hitter Aledmys Diaz.
Diaz jumped on a 78 mph curve ball and put it in the Crawford Boxes for a grand slam and a 6-1 lead.
“There’s no excuse,” Smyly said. “I thought a couple of the pitches were pretty close, didn’t get the call. Next thing you know, I walked all three and that’s kind of where it all went south.”
Meanwhile, Astros starter Gerrit Cole struck out 12 in six innings. He allowed one run on four hits and walked none.
Woodward said he’ll use an opener judiciously. Saturday’s early results certainly would indicate doing it again against certain lineups. For Woodward, a powerful, deep lineup such as the Astros is the best reason to use it. Also, considering the success the Astros had against Smyly on April 19, especially the top of the order, which was 6 for 13 with two homers and five RBIs.
“The most vulnerable time in the game is the first at-bat, and it’s the best hitters in their lineup, positioned the way the other team wants them,” Woodward said. “So if you can combat that by pitching more of a leverage guy and get you through that inning, maybe the starting pitcher only has to face the top of the order twice.”
That was true Saturday night. The top three Astros hitters — George Springer, Josh Reddick and Alex Bregman — were a combined 2 for 6 with an RBI and two strikeouts. Clean-up hitter Michael Brantley homered off Smyly in the fourth to tie it at 1-1. Hunter Pence’s seventh homer gave Texas a 1-0 lead in the second.
“It limits the amount of exposure to the starter, and stats show the third time around, no matter how good you are, not too many pitchers get better the third time around,” Woodward said before the game. “I don’t foresee us doing it a ton. But with this team, it makes sense.”
Ronald Guzman’s three-run homer in the seventh suddenly put the Rangers back to within two, but the Astros roughed up Dowdy some more with three runs in the bottom of the inning to push the lead back to 9-4. Dowdy was charged with four runs on six hits in one inning of work.
With Shawn Kelley on the injured list, the Rangers bullpen isn’t exactly brimming with options, especially when Chavez was used as an opener.
“We don’t really have a choice. We have to put guys in these situations; we can’t pitch the same guys every day,” Woodward said. “and I have complete faith in these guys. I want to put them in these situations; I want to see how they respond. I want to challenge every one of our guys, especially our younger guys. We’re going to see what they’re made of. And it’s not always about the results.”