ST. PETERSBURG -- As he was coming up through the organization, Blake Snell always knew that he wanted to be the type of pitcher the Rays called on when it mattered most.
Because of injuries, Snell wasn’t able to get the Game 1 start against the Astros in last year’s American League Division Series and was limited with his innings. But in the Rays’ 3-1 win in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, Snell got the chance to be “the guy” for the first time in his postseason career -- and he made the wait well worth it.
“Blake was just outstanding for us,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “We weren’t able to separate a game for good reason, their guys pitched really, really well. … But the good thing for us was that we had Blake going and he was just lights-out.”
Snell struck out nine over 5 2/3 innings on Tuesday and didn’t allow his first hit until Alejandro Kirk led off the sixth inning with a single to right field. Snell became the first pitcher in Rays postseason history to have a no-hitter through five innings. His strikeouts also tied a Tampa Bay playoff record.
“I felt good,” Snell said. “I’m getting into a groove. I’m starting to get the hang of it, I’m starting to feel it. The playoff energy always gets me a lot more excited for sure. It’s weird not having fans, but at least seeing people up there moving was really cool. Overall, I’ll say I felt really good.”
The Rays’ left-hander had all four of his pitches working, making him nearly untouchable. Snell threw 36 fastballs and averaged 95.3 mph on the pitch, which is slightly harder than his 95 mph average during the regular season.
Snell used the fastball to get ahead in the count, then utilized a potent changeup, curveball and slider combination. Snell threw his curveball 27 times on Tuesday, recording eight swings and misses and five called strikes.
“Throughout the game, you start to see what they’re having problems with and what you’re succeeding with,” Snell said. “I can tell that the arm speed and the release on the curveball, they weren’t picking it up, and that’s how I knew it was going to be an effective pitch. Once I realized that, I knew I could throw it for strikes and I could throw it for balls.”
The slider and changeup were also a big part of Snell’s repertoire. The left-hander threw the slider to left-hander Cavan Biggio and the other eight right-handed bats in the Toronto lineup. The changeup was primarily used against the righties. Snell became the first left-handed pitcher to record nine strikeouts or more and allow one hit or fewer in a postseason game in Major League history.
“With that lefty on the other side pitching, the moment he was throwing all his pitches for a strike, [I knew] it was going to be tough for our hitters,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, who was Snell’s manager at Triple-A Durham. “He’s a Cy Young [winner] and he’s their best pitcher. When he gets in trouble is when he throws his breaking pitches in the dirt, when he spikes that curveball, but he wasn’t today. I knew it was going to be tough.”
While Snell was the highlight in the Game 1 win, the Rays walked away encouraged with their overall performance. Willy Adames made three good defensive plays at shortstop and the rest of the defense followed. The club also got timely hitting from Randy Arozarena and Manuel Margot, who hit the decisive two-run homer in the seventh. Then there was the bullpen, which took over after Snell to shut the door.
It was just two years ago that the Rays were the young team trying to make noise in the AL. Now, as they come into the postseason as the No. 1 seed, the Rays know they’ve gone from the hunter to the hunted. But they’re trying to prove that the Blue Jays are still at least another year away by punching their ticket to San Diego on Tuesday. They’ll lean on Tyler Glasnow to get them there against Blue Jays ace Hyun Jin Ryu.
“We did a lot of things right tonight,” Cash said. “You’d like to find ways to separate games at times, but if you’re not, you have to play really clean baseball. And tonight was a pretty good representation of the Tampa Bay Rays and our players and how we go about winning games.”