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Ready or not, Tampa Bay Rays’ Blake Snell makes impressive return

With the team in the playoff hunt, Snell comes back with two perfect innings, striking out four, hitting 96 mph.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) [ CHRIS CARLSON | AP ]
Published Sep. 17, 2019
Updated Sep. 18, 2019

LOS ANGELES — Blake Snell had plenty to be excited about going into Tuesday’s game.

To return to the big leagues for the Rays as they battle for a playoff spot. To face a tough team like the Dodgers in their historic stadium. To get a truer read on his progress in recovering from July 29 elbow surgery.

Whether he was truly ready or not.

“I think if (we were) 20 games out I probably wouldn’t pitch the rest of the season honestly,’’ Snell said Sunday. “But since we’re in it, I feel like there is more of a demand I do get back and I do help the team.

“There’s good things and bad things about it. I’m happy we have a shot to be in the playoffs and really do something. The only thing I wish was I had more time to really focus on myself and get where I want to be.’’

The first measure came at Dodger Stadium, where Snell made a dazzling return with two impressive 1-2-3 innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced, working steadily at 95 mph and hitting 96 mph a couple times, throwing 26 pitches, 17 strikes, in the 7-5 loss. All four strikeouts were swinging: David Freese, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez.

Snell was quite pleased.

"I was happy with it,'' he said. "Happy with how I felt. Happy with how I attacked, for the most part. ... Happy with the fastball, happy with the slider. The one changeup I threw, I was happy with it. It was a good take by Freese. I’ve got to get more on the plate. But overall I’m happy with it. Definitely a lot to learn and build on. I really enjoy pitching here. I really enjoy the environment. Getting ready for it was pretty easy. Happy. Good game to continue to move forward.''

So was manager Kevin Cash.

"Outstanding,'' Cash said. "Couldn’t have asked for much more from him. You always wonder with not getting reps or that amount of reps how is the command going to be . The power was tremendous. The fastball command was great. (Pitching coach Kyle Snyder) said in his warmup session that he looked really, really good. So very encouraged by his performance.''

Cash had talked before the game of giving Snell up to 45 pitches to work with, but with his spot due up to open the third, they felt it wiser to cut him off then, using Mike Brosseau to pinch hit. Snell went down to the bullpen and threw 10 more pitches.

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The calendar and the schedule don’t allow for any other ways to get him back in top form.

With no more minor-league games for Snell to throw in, the Rays don’t have any other options but to do as they have Tyler Glasnow in his return from a forearm strain, balance getting Snell innings now so he can help them in October with the importance of games that will determine if they make the playoffs and can get there.

The margin is so slim, that even pitching Snell for the a few innings comes with some peril.

With 11 games remaining , they went into play Tuesday 89-62, one game behind the A’s for the top wild-card spot, and holding the second by one game over the Indians, who beat the Tigers.

Cash was confident Snell would be able to give them the kind of effective and efficient outing they needed.

“It better be really good quality,’’ he said before the game. “It has to be. That’s the message that we’ve given all these guys that are coming back to join us. We’ve got to manage the game to win. Blake is certainly capable of giving us good quality. What he did in his last outing in (Triple-A) Durham, just build off that and we’ll be really good.

Having had the six bone chips removed, done the rehab, pitched twice in the minors for Durham, Snell took the mound Tuesday looking primarily for feedback.

“I need information to come back (to me),’’ he said. “That’s my whole focus. I want to face the Dodgers and see how I feel and see really where I’m at.

“Then I can know where I’m at. I can know if I’m really where I want to be or if I have a lot of work to do. That’s the hardest part for me. I faced guys (in the Triple-A games) but it was guys I knew I could get out. I knew what I could do. I wasn’t impressing myself.’’

The feedback Snell wants is beyond the obvious, such as velocity and break on his curveball. It’s what kind of reaction do hitters have to his pitches, how effectively can he make adjustments on the fly, how does the adrenaline of being in a game that matters affect him.

“The first game that I threw (for Durham) I just wanted to throw the fastball and see how it plays right over the plate,’’ he said. “And it was hard to even throw it over the plate. It was weird. It was tough. I was able to learn from that: Okay, this is what I’m going to do. I made good adjustments and I got better for the second game. But it was Triple-A hitters. It’s not the big leagues. And that’s a big difference.’’

In the 50 days since the surgery, Snell said he has mostly good days though with some less so, acknowledging the daily uncertainty of his condition — and the constant attention from the athletic training staff — was a bit uncomfortable.

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“When you get hurt you like it’s going to be forever,’’ Snell said. “Then as the process goes the days just start flying by and then you’re ready to go and then you start being like, 'Was that too fast? Did I do everything I could?” It’s kind of weird.

“It’s my first time going through it. A lot of good days, a lot of weird days. … It’s a lot to do with my arm that I’ve never felt. So that’s been the thing I’ve been battling: Is this good? Is this bad? Should I take a day off? Should I not? So that’s kind of been my every day.’’

Snell is hoping to make three starts with the Rays, with the idea he can get built up to at least five-six innings should they get past the wild card game, and to be ready for the division series, which starts Oct. 4, potentially working the opener.

He insists the cautious handling won’t be frustrating.

“If I felt really good it would be,’’ he said. “But since I felt tired after my last start and I’m building my arm back up getting there, I’m not going to be as frustrated.

“I know where I’m at with innings-limit wise, how I feel, what I can do. I don’t think I’ll be frustrated with any of it. Whatever they think is good for me, I’ll be happy with. It’s all about pitching. Getting information from it, how I felt, learning, and getting better as quickly as I can.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.