May 24, 2024

The Dodgers used reliever Caleb Ferguson as an “opener” for rookie right-hander Ryan Pepiot on Tuesday night, a strategy the team could employ liberally this October to help compensate for an injury-depleted and inexperienced rotation.

By starting Ferguson for the fifth time this season, the Dodgers had the left-hander face the top of the Detroit Tigers order, with Pepiot entering in the second inning to face No. 5 hitter Kerry Carpenter. Ferguson struck out three of four batters but gave up a solo homer to Spencer Torkelson.

Pepiot then continued his push for a more prominent playoff role, escaping a first-and-third, no-out jam in the seventh to complete a six-inning, one-run effort in an eventual 3-2 walk-off victory before 42,223 in Dodger Stadium.

Mookie Betts sparked the winning rally in the ninth with a one-out single to center. Will Smith was hit by a pitch with two outs, and Max Muncy scorched a 110-mph single to right to score Betts, who beat Carpenter’s one-hop throw with a head-first slide to the plate.

Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol, pitching in front of his mother, Ysmalia, for the first time as a big leaguer, retired the side in order in the eighth to extend his scoreless streak to 21 innings, exchanging an emotional hug with manager Dave Roberts in front of the dugout while pointing to his mother in a club-level suite.

The Dodgers then tied the score 2-2 in the bottom half when J.D. Martinez grounded a two-out single to center, pinch-runner Chris Taylor stole second, and David Peralta sliced an RBI ground-rule double down the left-field line.

Martinez also hit a towering solo homer to center in the fourth, his third in two nights and 29th of the season. The designated hitter is batting .395 (15 for 38) with four homers and 14 RBIs in 10 games since returning from the injured list on Sept. 8.

If this game was a dress rehearsal for the use of openers in the postseason, it went pretty well.

“I still believe the opener [is based more on] strategy than need in that you can create a different look for that next pitcher coming in, and it allows him to potentially face some more hitters in a particular game,” Roberts said. “With our varied arms, it’s putting our thoughts together on how best to prevent runs and use our arms.”

Roberts acknowledged having “a little eye roll” when the Tampa Bay Rays became the first team to use an opener, starting veteran reliever Sergio Romo in two straight games in Angel Stadium in May 2018.

But Roberts and the front office warmed to the idea, so much so that the Dodgers used relievers Corey Knebel and Graterol as openers for 20-game winner Julio Urías in the fifth and deciding game of the 2021 National League Division Series, a 2-1 Dodgers victory in San Francisco that was closed by starter Max Scherzer.

“It’s one of those things where the Rays were out ahead of it by necessity,” Roberts said. “But I think the league caught up and realized it’s a really good way to prevent runs. Like all things, something that’s new is going to be met with some resistance. But there’s a reason why more teams are doing it.”

Roberts probably won’t use openers in the playoffs for veteran starters Clayton Kershaw and Lance Lynn, a pair of workhorses who would chafe at the idea. But he could for rookie right-hander Bobby Miller and in games in which rookie right-handers Emmet Sheehan and Pepiot and veteran left-hander Ryan Yarbrough are slated for bulk innings.

“In theory, on paper, things can make sense, but if there’s not a buy-in, then it’s moot,” Roberts said. “When you talk to guys who have been around, Clayton or Lance or Walker Buehler, those are harder conversations because they’re wired in a certain way, where they’ve had success. But the younger players, it’s a different culture where industry-wide they’re doing it more often. So it’s just more familiar.”

Roberts said Ferguson and Graterol, who has started once this season, would be his top two choices to use as openers because they are effective against left-handed and right-handed batters.

Ferguson held left-handed batters to a .250 average and .713 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and right-handers to a .261 average and .656 OPS entering Tuesday night. The right-handed Graterol held right-handers to a .244 average and .595 OPS and left-handers to a .222 average and .590 OPS.

Rib rattler

Smith acknowledged in a radio interview over the weekend that he suffered a broken rib when he was hit by a pitch from St. Louis’ Jake Woodford in an April 30 game, an injury that took months to recover from and still might be impacting the catcher at the plate.

Smith made his first All-Star team by hitting .279 with an .889 OPS, 13 homers and 46 RBIs in 66 first-half games, but he entered Tuesday with a .244 average, .697 OPS, five homers and 26 RBIs in 52 games since the break, including a .184 average, .614 OPS, one homer and six RBIs in 13 September games.

“Yeah, it hasn’t been great the last couple of months,” Roberts said. “Our guys looked at where he got hit in the ribs and just kind of cleaned up the mechanics. He went a little sideways, and that led to a lot of missed pitches in the hitting zone.

“The pain wasn’t [the problem]. I think it was more of, there was probably a little bit of guarding initially, and then when you’re talking about the rib, the oblique, that sort of dovetails into some changed mechanics.”

Rehab report

Reliever Daniel Hudson, who suffered a right-knee sprain July 5, threw to batters in a simulated inning Tuesday afternoon, but the chances of the veteran right-hander pitching again this season remain slim.

“It was encouraging to see him get some hitters, and I think we’ll revisit this in another four or five days,” Roberts said. “Our expectation is to play through October, so if we can continue to build him up … you know, it’s a long shot, so I think the most important thing is to continue to pass the certain markers.”

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