HOUSTON — Rookie left-hander Blake Snell was having enough problems Saturday, allowing the Astros four runs on eight mostly hard hits in three innings.
Then his night became more painful as he was struck on the left ankle by Marwin Gonzalez's sharply hit grounder to open the fourth and was forced from the game, which the Rays lost 6-2.
Snell said he was bruised but otherwise "fine," with no X-rays necessary, and he expects to make his next start. That was a better report than expected at the time, though it still brought a premature end to another frustrating night for the 23-year-old.
As much greatness as the Rays see in Snell's future, with the chance to be a front-of-the-rotation starter — maybe like Matt Moore, or even approaching David Price — they caution that there's still considerable work to be done for him to get there.
"What he could be? He could be a really talented starter," manager Kevin Cash said before the game. "With all young starters, a lot has to kind of take shape, take form. He's doing some of those things and some are lagging behind, but he's still looking to improve."
The most obvious item is to throw more strikes and to be more aggressive in doing so. It's a message Snell has been given by Cash and pitching coach Jim Hickey, by his teammates and even by Price, the ex-Rays ace who gave him advice last week.
But Saturday, when he made an effort to throw more strikes — going walk-free for the first time in 14 starts — he got hit hard.
"He threw the ball over the plate, but that's where kind of the execution of making quality pitches is so important," Cash said. "He fell behind, and when he had to make a couple pitches, he threw some center-cut fastballs and center-cut changeups, and those guys were ready for them."
Snell's to-do list goes beyond just throwing better pitches, as he has to learn how to be a better big-league pitcher, such as dealing with umpires whose strike zone he doesn't agree with, and overcoming mistakes made in the field behind him.
"This next month will be a big month for Blake, not just because of the command or throwing the ball where he wants," Cash said.
Snell also acknowledged after Saturday's game that he needs to do a better job of preparing, specifically in watching more video in advance of his starts.
"I've got to know the hitters better, I've got to see what they're doing," he said. "I felt like I was making good pitches (but) I was thinking differently than what they were thinking. I felt like they were in attack mode, swing mode, so I guess I should have been throwing more pitches out of the zone. But I'll learn."
Snell, to his credit, says that a lot about having to learn. And it shows by his performance since his mid June recall, after his April one-start cameo.
In his first five starts, he went 1-4 with a 4.05 ERA. In his next four, 2-0, 1.93. And in his past four, including Saturday, 1-3, 6.08 over just 131/3 innings.
"I think he's kind of going through what every young pitcher with high-quality stuff goes through, probably trying to do a little too much and not fully trusting that his stuff plays in the strike zone," said starter Chris Archer, who knows. "And it takes time."
Snell put the Rays in the early hole, allowing three straight doubles in the second, then a two-run homer to open the third.
The Rays got a two-run homer by Bobby Wilson but also made another baserunning mistake, with Tim Beckham being caught off second.