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Inside Blake Snell’s start: living and dying with the fastball

After dominating the Orioles early with his four-seamer, the Rays lefty gets a lesson in mixing it up.

Going into his second start of the season Friday night in Baltimore, Rays left-hander Blake Snell hoped to continue to build his innings while establishing his fastball. He wanted to see better velocity from his four-seamer, and it was up a tick over his first start, averaging 95.6 mph.

The result — an early exit for Snell three batters into the fourth inning — was disappointing, especially given how well he pitched going into the fourth in a disappointing 6-3 loss to the Orioles. But it’s a reminder how many pitchers, especially ones like Snell — who didn’t open this year’s abbreviated campaign regular-season ready — will have to navigate this year.

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It’s almost like these are spring-training games that count, and with a 60-game schedule they count a lot. But in Snell’s case, he must stay true to the process.

“I just wanted to throw the fastball, see the velo(city) and see if I can keep it consistent, if I can understand how my body felt throwing it, and I wanted to see if I was going to get tired at all,” Snell said.

Snell put runners at second and third two batters into the game, in part because of a Willy Adames fielding error that opened the game. But Snell escaped that inning by pounding the zone with his fastball and using his curveball as a chase pitch out of the zone, retiring the next three hitters.

Blake Snell throws a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning. [ JULIO CORTEZ | AP ]

He had a good feel for both pitches throughout the night, but again, the focus was on establishing the fastball. Snell threw his fastball 27 out of 40 times through his first three innings and retired nine straight in the process. He showed much better control than he did in his first start against the Blue Jays, and he attacked the zone to the tune of a perfect 14-for-14 first-pitch strikes.

But in the fourth, with the middle of the Orioles order coming up the second time around, the fastball became his foil. He began introducing his changeup and slider but held to the fastball as his out pitch, and he paid for it.

Renato Nunez opened the inning with a leadoff double on a full-count fastball, and Anthony Santander then hit a two-run homer on a first-pitch fastball — a ball that centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier couldn’t come up with at the fence, hitting off his glove and over.

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But it was the next at bat that was the biggest of Snell’s whole outing. He got ahead of Pedro Severino 0-2 on two swing-and-miss changeups, a clear sign that Severino was sitting on a fastball. And after missing with two curveballs, he threw Severino the fastball he was waiting for up in the zone on a 2-2 count. Severino hit it over the centerfield fence, giving the Orioles a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“He was sitting on it,” Snell said. “You could tell by his swings (on the changeups) he was sitting on it. So for me, it was just stupid how I set up that whole at-bat. I’m way better than that. I should have just thrown another changeup and just let him whiff at that again.

“A lot of that was very frustrating on my end, but I’m gonna clean it up. I’m gonna get better.”

The Baltimore Orioles' Pedro Severino celebrates with third-base coach Jose Flores after hitting a solo home run off Blake Snell during the fourth inning. [ JULIO CORTEZ | AP ]

Snell admitted he didn’t want to give in, so he probably threw a few ill-timed fastballs in that fourth inning and paid for it. He also admitted he hates pitching at Camden Yards, where the ball flies in the summertime when it gets in the air. His reaction to Severino’s homer showed that frustration clearly, as does his 10.13 career ERA at Camden Yards.

After the game, Snell said it’s a simple fix: “Make a better pitch, don’t let the ball get in the air.”

It’s one thing to see that increased fastball velocity. It’s another to take advantage of it while navigating through the game. Better velocity means the changeup plays better, and it did for Snell when he started introducing it. He could have started all three hitters in that fourth inning with it, because they were all looking for fastballs. The Orioles love the fastball, and no team saw fewer last season, and they struggled with off-speed pitches.

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It’s a lesson learned for Snell, a part of the process, in getting back to his Cy Young form.

“For me, this was a start where I really wanted to focus on the fastball, not shy away from it,” he added. “I’m happy with that. But now going into my next outing, just because of the competitor in me, it’s going to be more mixing, more pitching, more understanding at-bats, more setting up the at-bats.

“… I came in very prepared and very happy with the way I executed, but now it’s time to start mixing and start really getting nasty.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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