SAN DIEGO — Although Blake Snell was thoroughly frustrated about giving up three homers in his biggest start of the season, the Tampa Bay ace at least had a grudging appreciation for the New York Yankees' swings on each ball that cleared the wall at Petco Park.
The Rays' breaking-ball maestro was a whole lot more disappointed about the pitches on which he couldn't get the Yankees to swing at all.
“They were just a lot more patient today with certain guys that are usually swingers and more carefree, so that was interesting to see,” Snell said.
Snell pitched five inconsistent innings in the Rays' 9-3 loss Monday night in the AL Division Series opener, failing to match New York ace Gerrit Cole and putting Tampa Bay in an early series hole.
Snell appeared to have much of his usual dip and movement, although he claimed he didn't feel great. The results spoke loudly: Snell managed to generate only five swing-and-misses — just four on his vaunted breaking pitches — on 84 pitches to the Yankees.
New York made contact on 31 of its 36 swings (86.11%), the third highest rate by a team facing Snell during his career, according to MLB.com.
“When you play the Yankees, you’re going to get very professional at-bats,” Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino said. “They’re going to come in with a plan against our pitching staff, and I thought they did a good job. They worked themselves into some good counts. I think if we get some commitments early on in some at-bats, we’re in a different spot.”
With his first chance to face the Yankees in the post-season, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner couldn’t bamboozle a disciplined, patient lineup with his fluid array of curves and sliders.
Snell still took a 3-2 lead into the fifth, but surrendered it on homers by Kyle Higashioka and Aaron Judge. Higashioka's shot on a fastball after taking two breaking balls was a prime example of the Yankees' patience, while Judge's blast of an errant curve was simply a product of Judge being one of the game's greatest power hitters.
The Rays weren’t blown out until New York’s five-run ninth, but the AL’s best regular season team was unable to capitalize on its top pitcher’s first start — often a bad omen in any short series. Game 2 in the best-of-five set is Tuesday night with Tyler Glasnow on the mound for Tampa Bay.
“(Snell) didn’t get away with any mistakes tonight,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “Pitching against that lineup, it’s tougher when you’re behind on them.”
He wasn't awful, but Snell still had his worst statistical start of the season on the biggest stage. He matched his regular season highs while allowing six hits and four earned runs, and his two walks were one off his worst mark of the year.
“The solo shots, the three home runs, that’s frustrating,” Snell said. “It was just a weird night for me. I couldn’t really get in a rhythm. I couldn’t find consistency in pitches, so that was frustrating. I had to really battle with not a whole lot.”
Snell pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-hit ball in his first start of this post-season against Toronto last week, but the Rays' left-handed star has never been dominant against the Yankees, Tampa Bay's unfriendly rival for AL East supremacy. The Rays were 8-2 against New York in the regular season and claimed their first division title since 2010.
The Yankees have showed impressive discipline at the plate during this brief post-season against two of the AL's top breaking ball pitchers. They had just 13 swing-and-misses at Cy Young favourite Shane Bieber’s 105 pitches during the wild card series opener against Cleveland last week, and they maintained that plan in laying off Snell’s fearsome benders in Game 1.
“I thought they did a good job laying off some pitches,” Zunino said. ”(Snell) gets in a groove when he gets some commitments. It really tells me what’s working.”
Clint Frazier homered on Snell's second-pitch fastball in the third inning right after resisting a low curveball. In the fifth, Higashioka calmly watched those two curves before getting a fastball and driving it for his first post-season homer.
Judge crushed a curveball moments later for the go-ahead homer, but that curve ended up belt-high across the middle of the plate.
“The curveball to Judge, that was a stupid pitch, because I threw so many before that and I know how he thinks,” Snell said. “The catcher (Higashioka), I just missed my spot, and that’s frustrating, because I know he's aggressive.”
The Yankees didn’t really let it rip offensively until four innings after Snell left. Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam punctuated the win, but the Yankees never had to play from behind in the late innings because of their fifth-inning success against Snell.
Snell knows he's likely to pitch again in this series in some capacity, and he intends to be ready.
“I could tell they were more patient, and that’s good,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of time to go watch film and see their takes. Today was just their day. Next time I’m on the mound, I’m going to be the best I can be.”
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press