SEATTLE — After nearly three months of trial, some success, and a lot of error, the Seattle Mariners may have finally found their opener.
Right-hander Matt Wisler — one of eight relievers the Mariners have auditioned for the first-inning job this season — has had arguably the most success starting games in front of bulk pitchers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone.
Through four appearances and six innings as the opener, Wisler has yet to allow a walk or a run. He’s given up just two hits while striking out five, and has twice worked multiple innings.
“He’s embraced it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I think some of the guys realize, ‘Hey, that could be my niche,’ if you’re not afraid of it.
And, considering it’s an approach the Mariners will continue to use — LeBlanc and Milone have a combined 3.85 ERA pitching behind openers compared to a 7.04 ERA as starters — it has helped Wisler carve out a sustainable role.
“The big advantage for him is he’s started to many games throughout his career, so he doesn’t get too hyped up,” Servais said.
“It’s a different role,” Wisler said. “But, at this point in my career (any watch to pitch) in the big leagues is good with me.”
This is the first season of Wisler’s five partial seasons in the majors he hasn’t made a true start.He was drafted as a starting pitcher by the Padres in the seventh round in 2011 out of Ohio’s Bryant High School, starting all but two games he played in their minor-league system in four seasons.
Wisler was traded to the Braves in 2015, made his debut that year, and was still used primarily as a starter until 2017. Atlanta transitioned him into a reliever that season, having him come out of the bullpen in 19 of the 20 games he appeared in.
He’s mostly been used in relief since, starting just three of seven games for the Braves the following season. With the Reds later that year, he appeared in relief 11 times, and with the Padres this spring, he made 21 relief appearances.
Wisler was designated for assignment by San Diego at the end of June, and was quickly scooped up by Seattle in exchange for cash. Given his ample starting experience, the Mariners tried him out in the first inning on July 20, and got positive results — one inning, two strikeouts.
“I feel good (in that role),” Wisler said. “Obviously I’ve made a handful of starts in my career. That’s what I did my whole career up until this year as a full-time reliever. I’m used to starting the game.
“It’s a little bit of a different mentality doing it as an opener, but I basically just come in and try to act like, ‘What would I do if I faced these guys (later in the game),’ and pitch that way. I just try to get my way through the inning with three outs, and see what happens.”
The significant starting experience seems to have given Wisler an edge over the other relievers Seattle has tried in the role.
Matt Carasiti, now with Triple-A Tacoma, appeared five times as the opener, but ultimately allowed five earned runs across the outings, and was pulled with one out in the first inning of his most recent try.
Austin Adams tried it twice, gave up three earned runs, and eventually became more needed at the back end of the bullpen before sustaining a shoulder strain in July. He has been out since.
Gerson Bautista gave up three earned runs across two outings, Erik Swanson two earned runs across two outings, Tayler Scott — now with the Orioles — four earned runs in two games and Cory Gearrin three earned in one try.
Sam Tuivailala, who has appeared twice as the opener after returning from a long stay on the injured list, is the only reliever apart from Wisler who has yet to allow a run in the role.
Needless to say, it seems Wisler has discovered the most successful approach. He doesn’t enter the game trying to establish the fastball, instead cycling through all of his pitches to keep hitters off-balance.
“He comes out and he uses all of his pitching right from the get-go, knows it’s going to be short, and it’s been pretty sweet for him so far,” Servais said.
“I’m not going to face these guys twice,” Wisler said. “At most, I’ll face the order once. So, I’m going to go in there like it’s the seventh inning in a one-run game. I’ve got to go in there and get three outs, and whatever way I’ve got to do that, I’m going to do that.”