As the Rays dropped from atop to outside the AL playoff field — their hitters repeatedly failing to add on runs and their relievers regularly blowing games — the quality work of the team’s starters and bulk-inning pitchers provided optimism.
Now that is in peril, too, with news that Blake Snell needs arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his left elbow and will be sidelined at least into September.
The Rays’ initial reaction is likely to stick with the group they have: Charlie Morton and Yonny Chirinos as traditional starters, Ryan Yarbrough and Jalen Beeks working behind openers at times, taking advantage of four off-days in a 15-day span and five in 22 days.
Rookie lefty Brendan McKay seems likely to join them in early August, and there also is the possibility, albeit less likely, of acquiring a starter by Wednesday’s trade deadline.
The bigger question might be how much the loss of Snell impacts the Rays’ aggressiveness in making other needed additions by the deadline.
Or even if, combined with a bad weekend in Toronto, it could flip them into being sellers. They’ve lost 23 of their past 40 and woke up Thursday trailing the AL East-leading Yankees by 10 games and sitting behind the Indians and A’s in the wild-card race, with the Red Sox and Angels on their heels.
While acknowledging Snell’s absence is “a real loss,’’ GM Erik Neander said Thursday night that they are confident the team can remain competitive and that they plan to continue looking at ways to add. How much they are willing to give up, however, might be relative to the standings.
“The belief we have in this group extends well beyond Blake,’’ Neander said. “As long as they’re able to take care of their business and play to their potential between now and the end of the month, I think we want to do everything we can not to take this season for granted and see if there is a way to help this team in a responsible fashion.’’
After several rough stretches, Snell was recently starting to perform like the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. He had gone 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his past four starts. Overall, he is 6-7, 4.28, and the Rays are 11-9 in his starts.
But Snell also was pitching with something amiss in his elbow area over that time, and he said it got noticeably more painful and concerning this week, leading him to tell the team. He’s scheduled for surgery with Dr. Koco Eaton on Monday morning.
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“I started playing catch (Tuesday) and felt it move, like kind of behind my elbow. And then I threw off the mound (Wednesday) and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is different,’ ” Snell said. “Once I felt it behind the elbow, I didn’t want to mess around with it anymore.’’
The surgery is considered somewhat routine with the expectation that Snell could be back pitching for the Rays in about six weeks. That would be about three weeks, or maybe four starts max, left in the regular season.
Snell is hoping to be back then, at one point on the conference call with Tampa Bay media saying “100 percent,” then admitting he really had no way to know.
He said he was encouraged after speaking several times with Red Sox right-hander and ex-mate Nathan Eovaldi, who had similar procedures this season and last. Though Eovaldi, who also has had two Tommy John surgeries, had setbacks both times and was out two months in 2018 and three months this year.
“From what I heard from him and the training staff, yeah, I expect to be back in September, and I’m looking forward to that, and that’s my goal,’’ Snell said. “But at the same time that’s just what I’ve heard. I don’t really know how my body is going to react to anything like that.’’
Snell, while relieved it’s not a more severe injury, was similarly candid about coming back in top form.
“It’s all going to depend on how I feel,’’ he said. “I don’t know what this is going to (take). I’ve never had an injury before. I’d be lying if I said, “Yeah, I’m going to be the best pitcher in the world again.’ … I know I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that I’m that way.’’
Snell, 26, came into this season expecting similar success to last year, when he put together a historic breakout season, going 21-5, 1.89, to win the top pitching award, then eliminating any contract concerns by signing a five-year, $50 million deal late in what was an unimpressive spring.
But it has been a difficult season for Snell, struggling on the mound, missing time after breaking a toe in what he described as freak circumstances, then waking up Wednesday with his elbow sore and swollen and getting MRI exam results showing the need for surgery.
“I was just upset,’’ he said. “Felt like this whole year has kind of been that way. Started off struggling a little bit, then got it going, and then broke my toe. Then struggled a little bit and got it going, and then this injury happened. It’s just upsetting. Every time I found my groove and felt like I was about to get going, something had to get in the way. So this is very frustrating.’’
Snell was slated to start Saturday against the Blue Jays, so the Rays will add someone, maybe Jake Faria or Austin Pruitt to the bullpen (McKay started Thursday for Triple-A Durham) or Michael Perez as a bat. The adjusted rotation has Diego Castillo opening Friday’s game with Yarbrough slated for most of the work, Beeks either starting or working bulk innings Saturday, and Chirinos starting Sunday. They are off Monday and have Morton to start Tuesday in Boston, the last game before the 4 p.m. Wednesday trade deadline.
Snell said he was confident the Rays would stay in the playoffs race without him.
“We just went through a very tough schedule,’’ he said. “With the team that we have, I know they’re going to bounce back, they’re going to be fine and they’re going to ball out. So I’m not worried about them.”
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.