Snell wanted to face LA. He proved up to the challenge

Lefty pads Cy Young resume as Padres win first regular-season series vs. Dodgers since June 2021

September 14th, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Earlier this month, as the Padres laid out their rotation plans for the stretch run, pitching coach Ruben Niebla came to with a question. The Padres had been riding Snell fairly hard through the Dog Days. If Snell wanted an extra day of rest, the team could bump his scheduled start to Friday night in Oakland.

Snell did not want that extra rest. He wanted the ball. He wanted the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

And with six scoreless innings against one of the best offenses in baseball, Snell delivered his most emphatic Cy Young statement to date.

Behind Snell's efforts, the Padres cruised to a 6-1 victory on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, their first regular-season series win over L.A. in 13 attempts. (Last October’s NLDS upset notwithstanding.) Snell pitched six brilliant frames, allowing just one hit while striking out eight and walking one.

In the process, Snell lowered his ERA to a Major League-best 2.43. He entered Tuesday’s start already the apparent frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award -- but with a handful of contenders on his heels.

Then, on the road, in one of the sport’s toughest environments against one of the sport’s toughest lineups, Snell more than held serve. He was dominant.

“Cy Young-dominant,” manager Bob Melvin clarified.

Snell, of course, had the option to avoid the Dodgers entirely -- a move that, on the surface, might’ve bolstered his Cy Young credentials. Los Angeles boasts the Majors' second-best offense, per wRC+. Oakland ranks 23rd.

But that’s not Snell’s style. He prefers matchups like this one, and like last Friday night in Houston.

“I just enjoy the moment,” Snell said. “I enjoy the challenge. That’s why you play, to play the best teams. It’s the only way you can really tell how good you are.”

How good is Snell? Not only does he lead the Majors in ERA, he also leads the NL in hits per nine innings (5.98) and batting average against (.187), and is second in strikeouts (217, behind Spencer Strider’s 259).

“He seems to be on a little bit of a mission,” Melvin said. “This late in the season, to be throwing as hard as he does and have all four pitches working like that, he’s a tough customer to deal with.”

The case against Snell is largely rooted in the theoretical. Snell's walk rate (5.01%) is unusually high for a Cy Young contender, and because of those walks, his peripheral numbers indicate he should allow more runs than he does. The fact remains: Snell isn't allowing those runs.

In any case, Snell was at his dominant best on Wednesday night, recording only one walk while using his four-pitch blend to keep Dodgers hitters off-balance.

“Yeah, I mean, we've faced him quite a bit,” said Dodgers left fielder Chris Taylor. “... He's always had success against us. I thought tonight was the best he's looked since we've faced him.”

The Padres staked Snell to a lead straightaway on Juan Soto's 30th home run of the season. Luis Campusano made it 4-0 in the fourth with a three-run blast, and Fernando Tatis Jr. put the game out of reach with a two-run single in the sixth.

Snell had only thrown 91 pitches at that point. But there was little reason to run him back out for another inning, particularly without that extra day of rest after his strong effort in Houston. Snell finished having allowed only two baserunners -- Mookie Betts’ leadoff single and his third-inning walk. Snell retired Betts via popup in the sixth. The other Dodgers starters combined to go 0-for-17.

“He’s trying to make his push for the Cy Young, and understandably so,” said L.A. manager Dave Roberts. “He’s having that type of season. A guy like that, with the stuff that he has, when he’s on, there’s just not many lineups that can do anything with him.”

Now the ball is in Justin Steele’s court. The Cubs left-hander has seemingly emerged as Snell’s top challenger. Prior to Snell's outing on Wednesday, Arizona's Zac Gallen was roughed up by the Mets. Fellow contender Strider beat the Phillies -- but his case took a major hit last week, when he allowed six earned runs to St. Louis while recording only eight outs.

On Wednesday, Snell insisted he’s not scoreboard watching.

“I don’t wish nothing against them,” Snell said. “I’m just going to focus on what I’m going to do, and how I’m going to help this team win.”

And if he picks up some hardware along the way? 

“You want to be the best pitcher you can be,” Snell said last week. “That award kind of clarifies that. I'm chasing that, because I'm chasing greatness.”