PORT CHARLOTTE — Blake Snell is making his best pitch.
Not the 95-mph fastball at the knees that opposing batters flail at. Nor the slow curve that leaves them trudging back to the dugout.
This is the one where he stands at his locker in the Rays clubhouse and tells you that he has absolutely, positively learned his lessons.
From last year's lackadaisical spring. From his poor early-season performance, and how it was due as much to off-field issues as on. From his frustrating mid-May demotion to Triple A. From the much-needed pitching coaching and life counseling he got from then-Durham pitching coach Kyle Snyder. And from slower-than-he-expected progress when he returned, the second albeit aborted demotion, even the impressive turnaround he made over his final 10 starts.
"I know how good I am," Snell said. "I don't feel I've showed it at all. I had an okay second half. I know I'm way better than that. So it's just more personal.
"I know what I want to do and how I want to do it. There's nothing really messing with my mind or in my way right now."
The last part of that declaration may be the most important part.
Because as much as was wrong with mechanics and delivery and pitch sequencing and selection in that 0-4, 4.71 mess of his first eight starts, Snell's biggest problem was that he was in his own way.
"I just think it was off-field stuff I needed to situate before I could start focusing on what I needed to do on the field," Snell said.
"Just personal stuff. … It could be family problems, it could be any kind of problem. People go through a lot. I don't like to express it. I'm not going to talk about it. I just know I was going through something off the field that needed to be cleaned up and I cleaned it up.
"Now I'm focused. This is all I'm thinking about. It's been nothing but good energy that's been around me, and I'm just very appreciative of that. I'm focused on what I need to do this year to be the best me I can be and just the best teammate I can be again."
That explanation can get your mind racing toward sinister conclusions — even with Snell's public proclamation that he's never experimented with drinking or (coming from Washington where recreational marijuana is legal) smoking, actually winning a family bet by making it to his recent 25th birthday with no plans to end his abstinence.
When asked to clarify those issues, Snell said they related to a "personal relationship." While not to be minimized, that sounds like girlfriend troubles, which meshes with what others around him last year said.
"It wasn't anything bad," Snell said. "It was just something I'd never been through. And now I won't go through it because I'm not putting myself in that situation. I'm just focused on baseball."
Snell, who struck out nine Yankees over 4 2/3 innings Monday while allowing three hits and one run in his penultimate exhibition outing, has talked a lot about focus this spring. It was a popular topic of conversation when he drove through the night to get to Durham after his May demotion and sat in the stands for close to an hour with Snyder, who he considers a father figure from their time coming through the Rays system.
"There was some firm guidance," Snyder said.
Snell had work to do on being a better pitcher — and a better person. Besides strategic and mechanical changes, he was encouraged to stop sitting in his room brooding about what had gone wrong, to go out to eat with his teammates, to have some fun, start smiling again.
The happy ending narrative didn't work right out though. After seven solid starts in Durham, Snell rejoined the Rays — and really didn't do any better, 0-2, 5.34 over six starts. The Rays decided to send him back down, and though the need to put Alex Cobb on the DL changed that, the message got to Snell. "In my eyes that was BS," he said, "and I let them understand how I felt."
Better, he showed them. From that point on, he finally showed what everyone was waiting for — a dominant run of success, going 5-1, 2.84 over his final 10 starts.
To his credit, Snell says he knows that was just a short stint, that he needs to do better and for longer. He insists it's now "personal" to show how good he can be. His new more-serious approach has played well this spring, earning raves from bosses and teammates. But come March 30, we'll see if there's purpose to these pitches.