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Rays’ Blake Snell makes wild return to mound: Five batters, four walks

Snell was making his first start since getting a cortisone shot due to soreness in his elbow following his Feb. 26 debut.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell throws in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark in Dunedin on Monday.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell throws in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark in Dunedin on Monday. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Mar. 9, 2020
Updated Mar. 9, 2020

DUNEDIN — He was wild, like four-walks-in-five-batters wild, and missing badly. Threw harder than usual, clocking an eye-catching 97-98 mph from the start. Yelled at umpires. Was a mess mechanically and had trouble fixing it. Called his performance “ridiculous” at one point and “brutal” at another.

But there actually was good news for Blake Snell on Monday.

His left elbow, the one that was “super sore” after his one-inning spring debut Feb. 26, the one in which he got a cortisone shot two days later, the one he rested, then gingerly tested the last few days, felt good Monday .

“Great," actually, he said.

That he made a mess on the mound bothered him, throwing only six of his 22 pitches for strikes, getting only one Blue Jay batter out, making a long walk off the mound in the first inning.

He talked a lot about the mechanical changes and mental adjustments he needs to make, how he needs to have better control of his fastball and his emotions, and even got a little philosophical.

“It’s good to see failure," he mused, “because I was feeling so good and so confident, so to fail is always good because that’s what I’m going to learn most from."

But make no mistake: What mattered most — to him, to his Rays bosses, to his teammates and to their hopes to make this season special — was the elbow.

“From a health standpoint, I thought he was fine," manager Kevin Cash said. “Obviously with the 97-98 he was throwing. He just couldn’t make an adjustment for whatever reason. But we checked the box that he’s back out there. He looked very much healthy."

“One hundred percent," added pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “I was convinced of that when he threw a bullpen with a lot of intensity a couple days ago. I had no doubt in my mind that is the case now. Maybe even more so now."

Monday was a big step, but there are more that Snell has to take.

First, as many times as Snell said the elbow felt good, he allowed that he really won’t know for sure until the next couple days.

After all, he said he felt great following that that first start, then came in sore the next day, right at the spot where he had bone chips removed from his elbow last July, and was concerned there was another. By the next day, he was getting a CT scan and a cortisone shot.

“(Tuesday) will be a big day to see how it feels when it’s sore," Snell said.

Blake Snell is removed from Tuesday's game in the bottom of the first inning after loading the bases with walks against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Blake Snell is removed from Tuesday's game in the bottom of the first inning after loading the bases with walks against the Toronto Blue Jays. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Assuming all is well, Snell will pitch again this week, either in the controlled environment of a weekend simulated game in Port Charlotte or, if he gets back on a five-day schedule, then right back at TD Ballpark against the Jays on Saturday.

The bigger issue is trying to make up for his missed time, and balancing what he wants to do and what the bosses think is best long term, both for this season and the future given his five-year, $50 million contract.

At the least, Snell is a full week behind schedule. The Rays say they aren’t setting a firm timetable for his return and are talking about different scenarios, including one in which he opens the season on the active roster but doesn’t pitch until Game 7, on April 3 in Texas. If he goes on the injured list, he can’t pitch until April 7.

Expect the Rays to be cautious, especially since Snell’s workload was going to be limited this season anyway given that he only pitched 107 innings last year around a toe fracture and the elbow surgery.

“Now we just have to do everything we can to keep him healthy and not rush anything, be smart with his buildup," Cash said before the game.

Snell insisted Monday that he could be ready to open the season on time — presumably sometime in the first homestand, against the Pirates and Yankees, if not specifically in the March 28 second game as he likely was slated for.

Also, that in his mind, the elbow is now no longer an issue.

“It was a bump for sure, yeah, because I wasn’t able to play catch every day; I had months of catch every day. Slow down on your workouts, slow down on our catch," Snell said.

“But now bump it back up. Get it going. There should be no hiccups. I’ve got (two to three weeks) until the season, there’s no reason for me not to be ready for that. … It’s time to lock it in and get going because it’s a big year for us and I’ve got to be on it."

And, even though he’s been set back, there appears no question in his mind — and even some defiance to those he thinks may be doubting him — about getting right back on track for the kind of strong season he expected after his disappointing and frustrating followup to his 2018 American League Cy Young award performance.

“I’m confident," he said. “Time will tell. You’ll see. You’ll write your stories, but time will tell. I feel great and I’m looking forward to it."