LOS ANGELES – The idea of an opener became a reality for the Phillies Saturday night in Dodger Stadium and manager Gabe Kapler’s plan got his team all the way to its closer with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth inning.
That’s when Hector Neris’ Hollywood nightmare reared its ugly head once again. A 3-2 splitter from the Phillies’ closer was a decent pitch in the strike zone, but rookie catcher Will Smith reached down and launched it into the seats in left field for his first career home run, giving the white-hot Los Angeles Dodgers a 4-3 walk-off victory.
In his last three games at this ballpark, Neris has allowed six runs on eight hits, including four home runs, while recording just three outs. This time, he simply tipped his cap to Smith.
“I did my job and he did his job,” Neris said. “I used my pitch and he hit it. It was a great pitch and he got it. Great contact."
Asked about his turbulent past here, Neris shrugged it off.
“It’s something that can happen sometimes,” he said. “But it’s past. Tomorrow I will be fighting. I will get it tomorrow.”
The Phillies’ third straight loss left them just two games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. They will try to avoid being swept for the first time this season Sunday at Dodger Stadium.
Despite the defeat, which included a game-tying two-run home run from Bryce Harper in the eighth inning, Kapler was pleased with the way his pitching staff executed a plan that is becoming more and more popular throughout baseball.
The Phillies’ dive into the opener era was born when starter Zach Eflin landed on the injured list Friday. Kapler considered using traditional starters like Cole Irvin and Vince Velasquez, but instead settled upon left-handed reliever Jose Alvarez, who made for his first start since his rookie season in 2013.
“We had a couple of considerations,” Kapler said before the game. “The first was starting Cole Irvin. Another consideration was starting Vince Velasquez. The third consideration was having somebody start the game and seeing what (the Dodgers) do with their lineup.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did alter his lineup from the previous night with his team facing a lefty. Instead of six straight left-handed hitters at the top of his lineup, Roberts alternated right-handed and left-handed hitters through the top six spots in the order.
The primary strategy behind using an opener is limiting the number of times a pitcher must face the opposing team’s lineup since the numbers show the advantage shifts to the hitter the more times they see the same pitcher.
Alvarez faced nine batters in his two innings and did not allow a run. He left the bases loaded in the second inning by getting pitcher Clayton Kershaw to ground out to second base. From there, Juan Nicasio retired one batter and Irvin surrendered two runs in 3 2/3 innings, but did a more than respectable job to keep the Phillies in the game against a lethal lineup.
“I think Alvarez showed that he can go through a very tough lineup,” Kapler said. “Cole showed he is tough enough to come into a game mid-inning. Alvarez, Nicasio and Irvin all understood what their roles roles were coming into this game ... and they performed.”
Irvin left trailing 2-1 and the Dodgers made it 3-1 against Vinny Velasquez in the bottom of the seventh with an unearned run. Velasquez had only himself to blame, however, because it was his throwing error on a pickoff attempt at second base that set up a sacrifice fly RBI for Max Muncy. Had Velasquez’s throw been on target, he would have nailed Matt Beaty at second base.
After managing just one run in seven frustrating innings against Kershaw, Bryce Harper erased the Phillies’ two-run deficit with one swing in the top of the eighth off reliever Jose Urias. The Dodgers’ reliever hit Jean Segura with one out and then left a first-pitch slider over the plate to Harper, who crushed it into the left-center field seats for his 11th home run of the season.
Still, the Phillies’ offense has struggled in the first two games of this series, batting .181 (12-for-66) and scoring just five runs They have gone 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position in the two games, including 1-for-8 Saturday night.
The concept of the opener was introduced last season by the Tampa Bay Rays and it got legs around baseball because it worked for them. The number of teams doing it this season has grown to include the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and many others. Now the Phillies have officially joined the club and it’s likely Kapler will employ the strategy again at some point.
In fact, when asked, before and after the game, he did not rule out using Alvarez instead of scheduled starter Nick Pivetta to open the series finale against the Dodgers Sunday.
“Anything is on the table,” he said.
Rest assured we have not seen the last of the opener.