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Needed it 'so bad': Snell is first The Show champ

@adamdberry and @dohyoungpark and @MandyBell02 and @juanctoribio
May 3, 2020

He needed it so bad, and on Sunday he got it. Blake Snell (Rays) captured the inaugural MLB The Show Players League championship, sweeping Lucas Giolito (White Sox) with three straight victories to claim the best-of-five virtual World Series. And with MLB Network’s Robert Flores teasing a trophy in a

He needed it so bad, and on Sunday he got it.

Blake Snell (Rays) captured the inaugural MLB The Show Players League championship, sweeping Lucas Giolito (White Sox) with three straight victories to claim the best-of-five virtual World Series. And with MLB Network’s Robert Flores teasing a trophy in a shiny black-and-gold briefcase, it looks like Snell will even receive some hardware.

“What does the trophy look like, RoFlo,” Snell said. “I need to see it!”

Awards handed out for The Show Players League

Snell's victory means $30,000 will be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast.

As the Players League unfolded, Snell established himself as the clear favorite to win the championship. The 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner opened the virtual season with a 2-2 record, but he quickly bounced back, winning 22 of his last 25 regular-season games. Including the postseason, Snell won 26 of his last 29 matchups overall, suffering just one loss over the three playoff series against Gavin Lux (Dodgers), Jeff McNeil (Mets) and Giolito.

Snell earned the top seed during the regular season, thanks to a relentless offensive attack that saw him score a league-leading 145 runs. That attack carried into the postseason.

Full Players League results and standings

“I haven’t faced many hitters like Blake,” said Giolito. “He just sees the ball really well. It was an offensive onslaught, and it was too much to overcome. He’s very, very good at this.”

Snell didn’t waste much time getting the party started in Game 1 of the championship series. The Rays left-hander hit a leadoff home run with Willy Adames and then added homers by Mike Zunino and Austin Meadows, who helped introduce the Rays’ lineup on his 25th birthday. Snell went on to win Game 1, 5-1, and the tournament’s top-seeded player didn’t look back.

“I don’t know, man,” Giolito said with a smile. “These are going to be some long games for your boy.”

He was right. In Game 2, Snell did damage against virtual Giolito in the first inning with three runs -- including a 445-foot, two-run homer by Ji-Man Choi -- and then held off a White Sox rally to win, 3-2.

Down 2-0 in the series, Giolito hoped to get some momentum by playing at Guaranteed Rate Field, but Snell just wouldn’t let up. He kept saying that he “needed it so bad” and a four-run third inning helped him come away with a 6-0 win, completing the sweep.

“Usually I’m super-aggressive in this league,” Snell said about his approach at the plate. “But facing Lucas, I know he’s getting a lot better, and I knew I had to be a lot more patient. Once he starts to learn how to hit better, he’s gonna be nasty. I was happy I was able to play him now, because he’s gonna be really good.”

The MLB The Show Players League gave Snell and the other 29 participants an opportunity to compete, while also giving fans some entertainment during a difficult time. The 29-game regular season allowed fans to see a different version of the participants, one that is hard to experience during the grind of a 162-game season.

Brett Phillips’ laugh stole the show, Fernando Tatis Jr. showed how much he likes to celebrate -- even in virtual baseball. Snell, who’s an avid streamer, sang songs by Justin Bieber and other artists as he engaged with the fans.

Joey Gallo proved that he absolutely mashes and Giolito had Jason Benetti, the White Sox play-by-play man, join his stream in order to add some commentary. Juan Soto shuffled his way into playoff contention and Dwight Smith Jr. powered the Orioles into an unlikely playoff berth.

“They showed their competitiveness and at the end of the day, that’s what the fans love to see,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Emotion and competitiveness really go a long way and it made the programming very good.

“[The Players League] gave our fans an opportunity to interact with the game we all love in the absence of live play on the field,” he added. “We hope in a small way, it helped fill a void in their lives.”

The Players League wasn’t a replacement for the excitement of live baseball, but it was a very successful three weeks for everybody involved.

“You’re competing against guys that are the same level as you, so it’s always a lot of fun,” Snell said. “Being able to do that and feel that gameday feel in a way, where you want to win so bad, that’s pretty amazing.”

Semifinals

(1) Blake Snell def. (4) Jeff McNeil 2-1

For about the first half hour of the semifinal telecast, Snell engaged in the pleasantries and the chitchat. He asked McNeil about playing behind Jacob deGrom. He laughed about a Kevin Kiermaier play in center field. He bantered about the trade that brought Nick Anderson to Tampa Bay.

He lost.

That meant the time for fun and games was over. Snell sat up a little straighter, his eyes narrowed and he clammed up -- and his Incredible Hulk-like transformation into the ruthless hitting machine that terrorized opponents during the regular season was complete. McNeil couldn't hold back the floodgates as Snell unleashed innings of two, six, four and three runs in Games 2 and 3 to win a pair of 8-0 and 7-0 blowouts and set up his championship showdown against Giolito.

"I just stopped talking," Snell said. "That was my key. Don't talk and just focus on the game. As I did that, I started squaring it up and was on it more often and was able to put good swings on the ball."

It might not have made for the most engaging discussion, but there's a championship on the line now, especially with host Robert Flores teasing the existence of a grand trophy for the eventual champion.

Snell was clearly a little off in the first game, as he first struggled to make solid contact before his hard grounders and line drives would later find the gloves of Mets defenders. McNeil took advantage for a 4-1 win as Snell prepared to buckle down.

McNeil wasn't ready for what followed in Game 2. He escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, but Snell broke the seal with a two-run homer by Yandy Diaz in the second inning.

"If we can keep it 2-0, we're OK," McNeil said. "2-0? We're good. It's like those five-run innings where you're like, 'Oh no.'"

About that. It wasn't a five-run inning that followed, but a six-run frame, as Snell pelted McNeil to his doom with a flurry of singles and homers, and he didn't stop until he'd put the result out of any question by the middle of Game 3.

"I think he was just missing those pitches in the first game that he should have hit," said a dejected McNeil after Game 3. "Then, he didn't miss anything. I made some good pitches, but I left a lot over the plate. He did what he had to do with those pitches."

(6) Lucas Giolito def. (7) Ian Happ 2-1

Giolito came into the MLB The Show Players League with low expectations, considering that he had not played the video game a lot prior to the league. Now, the White Sox hurler is just three wins away from being crowned the champion after eliminating Happ in the virtual Crosstown Classic.

“It’s crazy,” Giolito said. “I never thought I would be playing video games on ESPN. I’ve always been a big video game fan and whenever I would turn to ESPN and see ESports, I would think ‘Oh that’s pretty cool’ and now it’s crazy that I’m actually doing it.”

Giolito was powered by his offense in Game 1, beating Happ, 8-3. Giolito scored four runs on seven hits in the first two innings and added four more in the second to create some separation. All of Happ’s runs in Game 1 came thanks to a three-run home run with himself, earning him a chance to talk about his gains.

“He is yoked!” Happ screamed, appreciating the biceps given to him by the game creators. “It’s the biceps!”

Happ’s biceps didn’t earn him a win in Game 1, but he was able to protect home field in Game 2, beating Giolito, 1-0, at Wrigley Field. That win set up a winner-take-all Game 3 on the South Side, and it was quite the battle.

Happ took the early 1-0 lead in the first, but Giolito quickly responded with a Yasmani Grandal two-run home run, giving him a 2-1 lead. In the second inning, Giolito got a much-needed insurance run on a solo home run by Luis Robert.

“That’s his first homer,” Giolito said as he raised his arms. “That’s his first career homer right there.”

“I’m so glad you hit it right now,” Happ said, sarcastically.

Now with a 3-1 lead, Giolito turned to his bullpen to secure the final three outs. But Happ, who made the playoffs despite a 9-9 start to the season, wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Happ made a critical baserunning mistake to open the inning, helping Giolito, who had all kinds of problems fielding fly balls in the semifinals, record the first out of the inning. To Happ’s credit, he shook off the mistake and was able to load the bases with just one out. But Giolito was able to retire Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras to end the game and start the celebration on the South Side.

“Very, very good series right there,” Giolito said, as he recorded the final out. “Those were good games. You guys can’t see it because I’m wearing a black shirt, but I am sweating bullets.”

“That was an epic series,” Happ added. “That was incredible.”

After the series, Happ and Giolito talked about a potential World Series between the Cubs and White Sox. A World Series that Happ says would cause “the city to burn down.” While that series would be a lot of fun to watch, Happ will now put the rivalry aside and pull for Giolito in the championship round.

“I believe in him,” Happ said on Giolito’s chances. “He’s going to do it for Chicago.”

Quarterfinals

(1) Blake Snell def. (8) Gavin Lux 2-0

Snell entered the postseason as one of the favorites to win the MLB The Show Players League, and the Rays ace showed exactly why with a two-game sweep against Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux.

“Snell is probably the best player in the league,” Lux said. “He’s just better. He’s better with [hitting], and I’m just not there. He’s better.”

In fairness to Lux, he kept it interesting against Snell despite the two-game sweep. In Game 1, Snell was able to sneak out a 3-2 win over Lux, thanks to some help from Austin Meadows, who has been Snell’s best hitter throughout the competition.

Meadows delivered a solo home run in the first inning off Walker Buehler to get Snell in front with Charlie Morton on the mound. Meadows also played a key role in Snell’s victory over Lux in the 29-game season.

“Meadows owes me a dinner or something,” Lux said. “Because he’s like 4-for-4 with two doubles and a home run off of me.”

Lux was able to mount a third-inning rally against Morton and Diego Castillo, but Snell secured home field at Tropicana Field to take a 1-0 series lead.

In Game 2, Lux had Snell on the ropes, taking a 3-0 lead thanks to a two-run homer with himself. Snell was relatively quiet against Clayton Kershaw through two innings, but the top seed went to work against the Dodgers' bullpen in the third.

Snell used three consecutive extra-base hits to cut the deficit to one. Lux responded with two quick outs, setting up a battle between Joe Kelly and Brandon Lowe. Remember, Snell hit the “fake bunt yammer” with Lowe during the regular season, and the move worked yet again as Snell launched a three-run homer with Lowe to take a 5-3 lead.

“When we play y’all again, I’m telling [Lowe] to square up for a bunt on the first pitch,” Snell laughed.

“Blake, look at me in my eyes through this webcam,” Lux said, as he sat up in his chair. “There’s no way you hit that. That was 102 mph and above the zone. I’m sick to my stomach.”

That’s why Snell’s the top seed. Snell would then record the final three outs against Lux, beating him, 5-4. Then the celebration began at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s getting rowdy,” Snell said. “Oh, it’s getting rowdy.”

(4) Jeff McNeil def. (5) Dwight Smith Jr. 2-0

McNeil raised both arms, watched the Mets’ dogpile in front of the mound at virtual Camden Yards and thought for a minute about getting a chance to celebrate like that in real life.

“I want that one time,” McNeil said. “In the World Series, though.”

He had to settle for a digital dogpile in the quarterfinals of the MLB The Show Players League postseason. McNeil (Mets) advanced to the semifinals by beating Smith (Orioles) in two games, but both contests were close.

Their first game at Citi Field went four innings, as Smith tied it up in the third with a homer by Chris Davis off Jacob deGrom. Smith pulled ahead by a run in the top of the fourth, when McNeil couldn’t put up a zero with closer Edwin Díaz, but Seth Lugo helped McNeil get out of the inning with no further damage.

With Pete Alonso on first base, McNeil summoned J.D. Davis to pinch-hit against left-hander Tanner Scott and blasted a walk-off homer to left field. After looking at his camera to Davis, and wishing him a belated happy birthday, McNeil took the series lead and shifted the series to virtual Baltimore for Game 2.

McNeil’s managerial moves helped him win there, too. With the game tied at 1 in the third, he used Brandon Nimmo as a pinch-hitter against righty Hunter Harvey and launched a go-ahead homer to right field. McNeil sat back in his seat and shouted in celebration.

“He’s living like four houses down,” McNeil said. “He probably heard me screaming on that one.”

McNeil then made it back-to-back homers by going deep with the digital version of himself. He called upon Dellin Betances to pitch the third inning and worked around a two-out walk to Smith to clinch the series victory. Funnily enough, MLB The Show named McNeil the player of the game.

“Hopefully I get a few real playoff homers,” McNeil said. “That’s the real goal.”

The series defeat ended Smith’s run in the Players League, but he earned his peers’ respect by putting up a bunch of runs and finishing fifth in the regular season despite playing with the game’s lowest-rated team.

“This league was awesome,” Smith said, “and I would definitely do it again.”

(6) Lucas Giolito def. (3) Bo Bichette, 2-1

Giolito was on the verge of upsetting Bichette when he found himself in dangerous territory. With a two-run lead in the bottom of the third, Giolito allowed Bichette to load the bases with just one out. Both players were silent, locked in on their screens, with Game 3 on the line. But Giolito and the White Sox prevailed, forcing Bichette to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to advance to the semifinals.

“The heart is pounding,” Giolito said with a smirk on his face.

All Bichette could do was laugh off the loss as the virtual White Sox dogpiled in front of the mound at Rogers Centre.

“You gave me a pitch to hit, man” Bichette said in response. “Missed it.”

Giolito's two victories came on the road in virtual Toronto. In Game 1, the White Sox hung on to win, 3-2, despite Bichette launching a two-run homer with virtual Bichette in the bottom of the third.

The two teams then went to Guaranteed Rate Field, where Giolito put himself on the mound to pitch in front of a rowdy crowd that was waving white towels throughout the entire game.

“That’s playoff baseball on the South Side, man,” Giolito said. “It’s been a while. Gotta make it happen in real life, though.”

Bichette was able to take down Giolito on his turf, 1-0, to even the series thanks, in part, to Giolito’s baserunning struggles. Early on, the White Sox hurler announced that baserunning was his “kryptonite” and expected to run into some problems during the playoffs. In the second, he had runners on first and third with one out and accidentally sent his runner home on a ground ball to third. When he tried to send the runner back to third, he sent all runners back to their original bases, causing an inning-ending double play.

“I did it again,” Giolito said in a defeated tone. “That’s just what happens when I play this game.”

Giolito rebounded in Game 3 with a 5-3 victory to advance to the second round. He said he made some changes to his game before the quarterfinals and is looking to better his game before he plays in the semifinals.

“I think that the pitching was pretty solid,” Giolito said. “I made the move to analog for playoffs. … I'd like to tighten up a few things, baserunning. I may have to get into practice mode a little bit.”

(7) Ian Happ def. (2) Joey Gallo 2-1

Once again, Happ had his back against the wall. Once again, the "W" flag of the Cubs still improbably waved over the MLB The Show Players League after Happ pulled off a stunning upset of the high-powered Gallo in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

Happ took a tough loss in Game 1 and was down to his final three outs of the tournament when he carried a 3-0 deficit into the bottom of the third inning of Game 2. Instead of folding, Happ completed a four-run comeback with a walk-off, three-run blast by Willson Contreras to force a decisive third game. A 7-0 trouncing of Gallo in the finale completed the heroics.

"I thought it was over after Game 1, to be honest, but Willie [Contreras] with the big knock," Happ said. "We're playing good baseball right now."

It was a comeback from the brink of elimination reminiscent of Happ's improbable run to make it to the playoffs in the first place. Happ had a 9-9 record in the first half of the regular season before winning 10 of his final 11 games to sneak into the bracket. Now, he's a semifinalist.

Perhaps Gallo was too distracted by Happ's incredible physique to properly focus on the game. No, really.

Gallo was visibly stunned when virtual Happ first stepped to the plate in Game 1, the Cubs outfielder's muscles nearly spilling out of his uniform.

"Dude, are you that yoked in real life?" Gallo asked.

"One of the strongest dudes on the field, pound for pound," Happ replied, casually knocking a double off the center-field wall with a flick of his wrists. "I'm a unit. I'm an absolute unit. All I do is hit flys, tris and bench. That's it."

The shock never wore off, and Gallo was awestruck every time Happ came to the plate in the series.

"Dude, I can't get over how big your guy is," Gallo said, still captivated, during Game 2. "He's absolutely yoked. Dude, who did you pay to get that? I mean, wow. Built like a middle linebacker."

"I'm 6-foot, 250, and it's all muscle," Happ coolly replied.

It doesn't look like Gallo ever properly recovered from the intimidation factor of baseball's new virtual Adonis. And by the time he recovered his bearings, Happ had already put the team on his, uh, extremely muscular back.

"Since we're on the subject, can you guys make my guy extremely yoked in the next patch?" Gallo asked the game developers out loud during Game 3 as his championship hopes were pounded into dust.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.