ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

D-backs’ Cristian Mena experiences his ‘Welcome to MLB’ moment in debut vs. Dodgers

Jul 3, 2024, 9:07 PM | Updated: Jul 4, 2024, 12:44 am

CRISTIAN MENA...

D-backs vs. Dodgers on July 3, 2024. (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports)

(Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports)

LOS ANGELES — Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Cristian Mena received a rude welcome to the major leagues from the Los Angeles Dodgers in Wednesday’s 12-4 win, but one with learning moments.

Mena walked into a very difficult first assignment coming up as a 21-year-old from Triple-A Reno to fill in for the injured Jordan Montgomery, and the Dodgers put four runs on the board before he recorded his first out.

Mena settled in and stopped the bleeding to get through three innings before Arizona turned to the bullpen.

“It’s something I’ve been working for, a dream come true,” Mena said postgame. “It didn’t go well in some aspects. But what can I say? It’s something I will never forget.”

His start began innocently enough, as he got Shohei Ohtani — talk about jumping in the deep end — to hit a grounder on a sinker away. The ball found a hole, and Mena put himself in harm’s way by walking Will Smith. On a 2-0 fastball, Freddie Freeman blasted a home run to right field. Teoscar Hernandez followed by roping a slider on the inside edge over the left-field wall to take a 4-1 lead.

D-backs farm director Shaun Larkin told Arizona Sports pregame the key for Mena would be getting ahead consistently to leverage his effective secondary pitches. Mena had fallen behind three straight batters and it cost him dearly.

But the prospect retired six straight hitters to get through the first and second innings, striking out Chris Taylor and Ohtani. His first career K to Taylor came on a 96 mph heater on the outside corner.

Mena struck out Ohtani on a curveball down, perhaps his best pitch.

“It’s not easy, but I’ve been around good people that gave me some advice,” Mena said of getting out of the first inning. “I think I’ve been learning a lot, and I still have a lot to learn, but that’s something important to me: Flush it and just forget about what just happened and focus on the next inning.”

He managed a scoreless third inning, but the boat was rocky. He walked two and moved the runners up with a balk. Right fielder Jake McCarthy saved the day by throwing out Freeman at home on a potential sacrifice fly to end the frame.

Mena’s final line: 3 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 70 pitches

He produced 10 whiffs in the process, showing some of that plus secondary arsenal. The issue was a lack of strikes at only 40 of 70 pitches. Against elite hitters on the other side, Mena put himself in tough spots.

His offense picked him up, though, as he exited the game in favor of Bryce Jarvis with a 5-4 lead. Arizona scored 11 unanswered runs after trailing 4-1 to even the series. The bullpen went six scoreless innings.

Mena became the fifth-youngest D-backs pitcher to start a game and youngest since Tyler Skaggs in 2012.

When Aces pitching coach Doug Drabek told him he reached the majors, Mena’s reactions were “No way” and “Stop playing with me.”

“There probably won’t be any tougher environment during the regular season that he’s going to have to step into, a tougher venue, a tougher lineup,” Lovullo said. “He knows what it looks like to stand on a big league mound and have to make pitches, and he’s going to take that experience with him. That’s what I told him when he came out of the game.

“I said, ‘This is a great moment for you. Make sure you appreciate what you’ve done and celebrate what you’ve done, even though it wasn’t satisfactory. I know you’re upset. You now know what it takes to be a big leaguer, and you’re gonna come out bigger and stronger from this experience.”

Lovullo opted not to use left-hander Joe Mantiply as an opener to ease Mena in so the rookie could keep his typical routine.

The third-ranked pitcher in Arizona’s farm system, Mena had a 4.90 ERA with Triple-A Reno before his call-up and is the Pacific Coast League leader in strikeouts.

Lovullo said the plan for his next start has not been determined.

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