Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Blake Snell's emergence bright spot in Rays' lost season

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TORONTO — Even in this miserably lost Rays season, temporarily allayed by Tuesday's 9-2 win over Toronto that allowed them to shed the AL's worst record by improving to 46-66, there are a few signs of promise worth keeping track of.

Evan Longoria swinging for career-best numbers. Matt Duffy making his debut. Kevin Kiermaier staging his nightly gold medal acrobatics show.

And, perhaps most important of all, Blake Snell pitching.

Snell takes the mound tonight, making the 11th start of his fledgling career and facing one of his toughest tests in the Blue Jays' potent, experienced and primarily right-handed lineup.

That he shares his excitement over the challenge — "I'm going to have to be on my A game, but I'm really looking forward to it" — provides a good sense he has the talent and temperament to deliver the good things the Rays expect.

"No doubt," manager Kevin Cash said. "There's a lot of excitement, and there should be. This is a guy, this organization has seen some really good young pitchers come up, and I think he fits right into that mode."

As Snell is dealing on the mound — mixing his high-octane fastball with a slider, changeup and a curveball that tantalizes hitters as if it drops off the table — Cash often finds himself turning to pitching coach Jim Hickey and asking how Snell compares to Scott Kazmir or David Price or some of the other star starters who have come through.

In his first 10 trips up the mound, Snell has shown glimpses, even innings-long glances, at how dominating he can be, leaving some hitters shaking their heads and no less an expert than Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw impressed.

Snell's overall numbers are solid, especially for a 23-year-old who a year ago was working his way up from Class A to Triple A: 3-4 with a 2.95 ERA and better than a strikeout an inning.

More promising, he has been trending upward: 2-1, 2.15 over his past five starts, with 36 strikeouts in 291/3 innings tarnished only by 12 walks that he is already addressing.

"He's made progress," Rays starter Chris Archer said. "But he can be even better. And that's the scary part."

One encouraging sign is that coaches and teammates rave as much about how Snell does things as what he does.

Cash repeatedly points out how Snell immediately makes whatever it was that needed adjusting in his previous start the focal point of his next.

"The stuff that he features obviously speaks for itself, you can tell just by the swings that he gets and the chase that he gets that he's just got some electric stuff, so that's impressive," Cash said. "But it's the maturity he has shown at this point."

Another is that Snell is eager for advice and input, and, refreshingly, doesn't act like he knows it all. That first surfaced early in spring training, when Archer publicly called him out for not arriving early and Snell thanked him.

"He's open-minded," Archer said. "He observes. But he also asks questions. He's curious. And he makes us better, too, he brings the youth element, kind of the wild-eyed kid, first time in this city, first time in the next city, first time in certain ballparks.

"He's always texting, like what time do I need to get to the field? Should I take Uber? Should I walk? What shoes should I wear? So he's definitely not the prima donna top prospect. He's definitely different."

Snell keeps a low profile and quiet presence in the clubhouse, talking in barely above a whisper, though there is definitely a quirky personality bubbling underneath, evidenced by his collection of 225-plus pairs of sneakers and predilection to talk to himself on the mound.

And he knows what he has done, no matter how impressive, is not much.

"I feel like there's a lot more to come," Snell said. "I'm only 23. I only know so much. I know that as I get older there is a lot more to learn. And I know just by watching these guys and seeing what their confidence is, how they overcome certain thing, I know there is still so much for me to learn and grasp on to."

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