ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell was pretty dazzling rolling into the seventh inning Wednesday without a scratch, nor a hit. The three-run lead his teammates had cobbled against the Indians was looking like it would stand up, positioning the Rays for a win that would yield two significant numbers. The only looming issue seemed to be whether Snell would get the chance, with his pitch count approaching 100, to finish what he started.
All of which left manager Kevin Cash in an uncomfortable position, and with an odd reaction, when Jose Ramirez knocked a full-count curveball over the leftfield fence for Cleveland's only hit in the Rays' 3-1 win.
"Yeah, I can't lie, I was okay with the hit coming because I don't know, he wasn't going to get to that 140 pitches as bad as everybody else would have wanted him to,'' Cash said. "It just wasn't going to happen. (Pitching coach) Kyle (Snyder) would have beat me down and made me go out there (and take him out).''
Had Cash pulled Snell with a no-hitter (for the second time this season, though an asterisk required), talk radio and Twitter feeds would have been flooded with discussion, discourse and disagreement.
Instead, the debate today is simply this:
Is Snell, after picking up his majors-most 19th win and lowering his ERA to 2.03 ERA, the best pitcher in the American League and the leading candidate for the Cy Young Award?
"He deserves to be in the conversations that he's in right now,'' Snyder said. "He's as good as any pitcher in baseball. And if you ask me, he's the best.''
Those conversations might include up to a half-dozen candidates, and with a couple returning from injury, might continue to the end of the season. Boston's Chris Sale, Cleveland's Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, and Houston's Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander all deserve mention.
But has any done as much, and as impressively, as Snell, whose only shortfall will come in the counting stats (164 innings, 195 strikeouts) because of the couple of weeks he spent on the disabled list.
Wednesday was, among other things, his majors-most 18th start of the season allowing one or no runs, his seventh straight win, his second start of six no-hit innings (and third with five), and his ninth win in 12 starts against one of the top-five offensive teams.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona, after losing twice to Snell in 12 days, offered some testimony.
"Oh man, he's got the whole package,'' Francona said. "I mean, he's in the other uniform, so (you want to beat him), but my goodness. He's got velocity. Breaking ball. Changeup. Just seeing how much he's improved from one year to the next, that's pretty special stuff.''
The transformation from last year's 5-7, 4.04 guy who was sent down to the minors twice to this season's ace has been remarkable, the product of many hands. But mostly Snell's steely determination to be the best.
"Blake got really accountable really fast when he got sent down and realized and recognized the talent he had wasn't matching up with the performance,'' Cash said. "There were a lot of things, but ultimately it comes down to Blake's conviction and what he's capable of doing in this game. And he's pretty special.''
Snell, 25, has shown that repeatedly this season, the combination of a repertoire of four above-average pitches, throwing left-handed from a 6-foot-6 frame, being focused and driven.
Did he know he had a no-hitter Wednesday, and that he was going for his 19th win, second most in team history behind David Price's 20 in his 2012 Cy Young season?
Did he care?
Not as much as getting the Rays their 80th win (matching their most under Cash), keeping alive their long shot chances of an AL wild-card spot by catching the A's, who come to the Trop this weekend.
"Don't think about it,'' Snell said of the bid to join Matt Garza in throwing no-hitters for the Rays. "I focus on, we need to win, we're making a playoff push. We believe that as a team, and that's our focus. I'm able to focus on each pitch and know that it's going to get us a good outcome."
Going into the seventh with 82 pitches, Snell also knew he was going to have to remain efficient, as he was in throwing only eight pitches in the fifth inning and nine in the sixth.
Falling behind 3-and-0 to Ramirez, a leading AL MVP candidate, put Snell in a bad spot. Snell had been relying mostly on the curve, and Ramirez, aware he hadn't been throwing the fastball for strikes as much, guessed right.
Snell wasn't too frustrated at not getting deeper with the no-hitter. He had posted six zeroes against the Nationals on June 25, then gave up a double to open the seventh. He had worked five perfect innings against the Blue Jays on Aug. 10 but was on a short leash in his second start off the DL and pulled.
So what looked like no-hit stuff to the rest of us Wednesday really wasn't that big a deal to Snell.
"I knew I felt good,'' he said, "but I've been feeling good for a while so I didn't notice a difference.''
Which is really saying something.
Contact Marc Topkin [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.