Snell's last test: Saving the Rays' season

Lefty pitching like an ace -- but now stakes are higher than ever

October 27th, 2020

ARLINGTON -- Since getting drafted in 2011, Blake Snell has wanted to be the guy for the Rays. He’s made it clear that he wants to be the organization’s ace, getting the ball when the team needs him the most.

Snell will get his chance to prove that Tuesday, as Tampa Bay will rely on the left-hander to keep its season alive in Game 6 against the Dodgers at Globe Life Field.

“I’m pretty excited,” Snell said. “It’s going to be a game that we have to win. I’m excited that I’m in a position that I can pitch Game 6. … That’s a tough team over there, and we’re gonna have to keep playing really, really good baseball.”

Snell, 2-2 with a 3.33 ERA in five starts this postseason, has provided the best start for the Rays in this World Series. The left-hander allowed two runs over 4 2/3 innings of work, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning before running into trouble in Game 2 on Wednesday.

Most of Snell’s success was due to a willingness to attack Dodgers’ hitters in the zone, particularly with his secondary pitches. That sounds like a simple solution, but that’s part of the inconsistencies the left-hander has battled through this season.

Snell had 10 called strikes on the four-seam fastball, which opened up his ability to attack with the slider against both righties and lefties. Snell threw 27 sliders in Game 2, getting nine swings-and-misses -- the most he's gotten on the pitch in a game this season -- and three called strikes.

Snell also utilized his curveball, getting four called strikes on a pitch that is usually used to get opposing hitters to chase out of the zone with two strikes. When Snell has three of his four pitches working, he becomes nearly unhittable, which is what propelled him to the American League Cy Young Award in 2018. The good news for the Rays is that Snell showed glimpses of that in Game 2, and the club is counting on that Snell to show up again in Game 6.

“He’s a heck of a pitcher,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “He really did a nice job the first game he threw, striking the breaking ball. He gets left and right out. He’s a really good competitor with top-end stuff. We’re going to have our hands full. But I like our guy, I think it’s going to be a close game, and the team that gets the big hit, makes the big play is going to win.”

One area where Snell needs to improve is getting ahead earlier in the count. He threw a first-pitch strike to 11 of the 20 batters he faced in Game 2. Though that’s over 50 percent, the Dodgers thrive on hitting when ahead in the count, so it’s crucial to limit those opportunities.

During the regular season, the Dodgers’ OPS when behind in the count was .558. That number nearly doubled to 1.084 when they were ahead in the count, something Snell recognizes heading into the elimination game.

“It’s tough because they’re gonna make adjustments,” Snell said. “They’ve seen me, so they’re going to make adjustments to what they just saw, I’m going to make adjustments to what I saw. I’m gonna have my game plan, they’re gonna have their game plan. I’ll make adjustments throughout the game.”

Aside from the obvious adjustments and the game plan pitching coach Kyle Snyder comes up with, the Rays need Snell to be the pitcher they saw dominate the AL in 2018.

Snell battled through injuries in 2019 and wasn’t able to get the ball in crucial situations during the team’s playoff run last season. But those injuries are behind him, and this is his time to show why the organization gave him a five-year, $50 million deal last year. Snell calls his start day “bumpday,” and Tuesday’s will be the biggest one of his career, giving him the chance to prove that he can, indeed, be that guy.

“He’s a big-time pitcher and he likes the big stage,” said Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. “We feel really good about ourselves with him out there. I know he’s going to be excited to get the ball in that situation, given what’s at stake for us. We’ll be ready to go.”