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Rays put their trust, and their season, in Blake Snell’s hand

Lefty starter will be on mound for Game 6 of World Series trying to keep Dodgers from clinching.
Rays Game 6 starting pitcher Blake Snell heads off the field after playing catch during an optional work out Monday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Rays Game 6 starting pitcher Blake Snell heads off the field after playing catch during an optional work out Monday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 26, 2020
Updated Oct. 27, 2020

ARLINGTON, Texas — Kyle Snyder will start with a few morning text messages — strategic, motivational, occasionally flat out challenging — and how Blake Snell responds will be the first sign of what to expect Tuesday night.

Next will be Snell’s demeanor when he shows up at Globe Life Field to start the World Series game the Rays must win to have a chance to play in a seventh on Wednesday for the championship.

“It’s generally his body language in the clubhouse,” Snyder said Monday. "His facial expressions. How focused he is. How he walks around. Those are the most telling things.

“And certainly his warmup. It generally has some bearing, although I will say his warmup prior to Game 2 was one of the worst warmups I’ve seen from him and he went out and pitched really well.”

As disappointing as the other Rays starters have been against the Dodgers thus far, Snell was dominant in that Game 2 outing, taking a no-hitter into the fifth before allowing a two-run homer and then quickly pitching himself out of the game.

Which is why the Rays are saying, and certainly hoping, he is the right man to be on the mound for Game 6.

“He threw so great the other night, and he’s a big-time pitcher and he likes the big stage,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “So you know we feel really good about ourselves with him out there.”

“Blake’s been in big moments before,” outfielder Austin Meadows said. “We know he loves to compete out there and he’s going to give it his best. Obviously, it’s a win-or-go-home situation, and obviously we wouldn’t want anybody else out there on the mound than him.”

Snell’s father, Dave, talked with him Monday and got the same sense.

“He’s ready, I know he’s ready for it,” Dave Snell said. “He’s got a lot of confidence going out there. He feels good, probably the best he’s felt all year. He said he’s going to do everything he can to get them to Game 7.”

Snyder has known Snell since they were both climbing from the lower levels of the Rays farm system in the early 2010s. He has been with him through the lows of his demotion back to the minors in May 2017 and his July 2019 elbow surgery, as well as the highs of his 2018 American League Cy Young award. He has Snell’s implicit trust, and they are so tight that Snell refers to him as his second dad.

So even though Snell has never pitched with the stakes this high, and even though he has been more inconsistent than anything this season, Snyder is adamant he is going to come up big.

“I think he’s going to be a difference-maker,” Snyder said. "We lost Game 1, and it was probably as focused as I’ve seen him going into a start. ... And that’s about as good as I’ve seen him pitch this year, despite losing the zone a little bit in the fifth.

“He’s laser-focused right now on what he wants to do and what he can do to assist us in taking home a trophy. I would expect him to come out and pitch just as good, if not better than he did in Game 2.”

Snell can be an interesting character study.

He clowns around during his Zoom interviews and acts goofy around the clubhouse and on his video game Twitch channel.

He says ill-advised things about trades the Rays made (calling Xavier Edwards a “slap---- prospect), the coronavirus (”If I get it, I get it."), and whether it would be worth playing this season based on how much salaries were cut (“I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, okay?").

He looks petulant reacting to manager Kevin Cash taking him out of games, especially when his colorful language is caught on camera.

But with the ball in Snell’s left hand and their season on the brink, Snyder expects him to rise to the challenge.

“I don’t know that I can compare anybody’s competitiveness to his on the team,” Snyder said. "You see, he can be reactive, as reactive as anybody out there. That just shows you how competitive he is. It’s hard for him to harness that sometimes. It’s generally quiet. It’s very intense. ... It’s generally within him, but obviously there are outbursts, be it on the positive or negative side, and he’ll show it as much as anybody we have.

“He is as competitive a person that I’ve been around. It’s not just the tenacity that he pitches with. His will to win, and want to help the club to win, I don’t know that it can be paralleled.”

When Snell, 27, spoke to the media before Sunday’s game, he didn’t know if he would be pitching to clinch the Series championship, or to keep the Rays alive. He said it wouldn’t change his mindset.

“Either way, it’s going to be a big game,” Snell said. “And it’s going to be a game that we need to win. So, however I want to look at it or make it look, it’s going to be the same. We need to win that game. So, yeah, I’m excited that I’m in the position.”

That doesn’t mean he will be as sharp, that he will have the three of his four-plus pitches working he usually needs to be successful. The Dodgers saw him six days ago, and their veteran hitters are likely to make adjustments, which Snell will try to counter. Cash wants to see more conviction and aggressiveness in attacking hitters from the start of each at-bat.

The gist of one of the texts Snyder sent before Game 2 was that Snell had done a lot to get the Rays to this point, but this was an opportunity that they might never have again, the game was the most important he would ever pitch, and it was pretty much up to him.

“I definitely, in a general sense, challenged him a little bit more than I typically would,” Snyder said. “It’s probably going to be something similar to that, given how he responded in the first game.”

Might be the right time, in pitching parlance, for Snyder to repeat his delivery.