When asked the key to the Rays plan to win the American League Division Series showdown against the Yankees, manager Kevin Cash kept it simple: the pitching staff.
The Rays turned to 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell in Game 1 on Monday, but the left-hander struggled to find consistency, allowing four runs over five innings, in the Rays’ 9-3 loss to the Yankees at Petco Park.
“It was just a weird night for me,” Snell said. “I couldn’t get in rhythm, I couldn’t find consistency with pitches, so that was really frustrating. I had to battle with really not a whole lot. Overall, it was frustrating.”
In the history of best-of-five postseason series, Game 1 winners have gone on to take the series 98 of 136 times (72 percent). Last postseason, three of the four Game 1 winners in the LDS went on to win the series.
Snell, who found success with a 3.38 ERA in two starts against the Yankees this season, was unable to keep them inside the ballpark. The Yankees connected on three home runs off the left-hander, including two in the fifth that gave New York a 4-3 edge after Ji-Man Choi had given the Rays the lead in the fourth. The three home runs off Snell tied a career high. The last time a team hit three homers in a game off Snell was on March 28, 2019, against the Astros.
“The curveball to [Aaron] Judge was a stupid pitch because I threw so many before that and I know how he thinks. So I already knew that was a bad pitch,” Snell said. “To [Kyle Higashioka] I threw a down-and-in fastball, but just missed my spot, so that’s another frustrating one. And then [Clint] Frazier, I liked the pitch I threw to him, he was just ready for it and knew what pitch was coming in that count. But I like that pitch, so tip your cap to him.”
Aside from the three solo homers, Snell’s biggest downfall was not being able to get ahead in the count, and when he did, he wasn’t able to record swings and misses at his usual clip. The game began with Snell jumping out to an 0-2 count against DJ LeMahieu, who fought back to a 3-2 count before lacing a single back up the middle. Snell threw LeMahieu all four of his pitches in the at-bat to no avail.
Snell recorded just two swinging strikes on 20 curveballs on Monday, which is significantly lower than his season average. Snell came into Monday’s start with a 61.8 percent whiff rate on the curve, the highest rate by any starting pitcher with any pitch. He recorded eight swings and misses on 10 curves in the Game 1 win over the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series.
“Blake was so good against Toronto attacking the zone with whatever pitch and tonight it looked like, I don’t know, maybe trying to be a little bit too fine,” Cash said. “Probably for good reason because they’re so talented in that lineup, but it’s tough pitching against that lineup, and it’s tougher when you’re behind on them.”
Overall, Snell, who came into the start with a 34 percent whiff rate, got just five swinging strikes out of 36 swings on Monday, 13.9 percent, his lowest whiff rate in a start since Sept. 1, 2017.
“I think he gets in a groove when he gets some commitments,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino. “I thought he threw a couple of really good breaking balls that they laid off of, and that sort of dictates where we go with the next sequence. But they did a good job of laying off some pitches.”
Though Snell had the early struggles, the Rays’ pitching staff will have to find a way to pitch better and slow down the Yankees’ high-powered offense. John Curtiss allowed five runs in the ninth, forcing the Rays to use a fourth reliever in Shane McClanahan. The nine runs allowed on Monday were the most by the staff this season other than when the Blue Jays scored 12 on Aug. 14.
As a team, the Rays haven’t lost on back-to-back days since Sept. 7-8 against the Nationals. The Rays will lean on Tyler Glasnow to keep it that way in Game 2, hoping the right-hander can even the series at one game apiece.
“Today is today and tomorrow is a new day,” Choi said. “We will definitely have a different approach. We are still confident we are going to win. We have a confident group. Tomorrow we are going to bounce back and see where it goes from there.”