SAN DIEGO — Blake Snell arrived at Petco Park on Sunday afternoon with one goal in mind: Get deep in the game.
He made it five innings as the Rays took Game 1 of the American League Division Series, 2–1. Five isn’t a lot. But it was enough.
“I’m happy with it,” he said afterward, “Because I know how tough it was.”
The Rays are two days free of an ALDS that went five games and required 6 ⅔ innings from their bullpen in the final one. Their three relief aces—righties Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson—all went at least two frames. Tampa Bay will now play as many as seven games in seven days against the Astros, who—even when they do not know what is coming—become exponentially more lethal against opponents’ relievers as they grow familiar with them.
The way to beat Houston is to hide your best relievers for as long as possible. So the Rays actually scored two wins on Sunday: They won the game. And they did not use Fairbanks or Anderson.
At one point it seemed that they might escape without using any of the three. But Snell fought mightily to go even as deep as he did.
Leadoff man George Springer worked his at-bat to six pitches before lining out. José Altuve homered. Michael Brantley dragged his at-bat to nine pitches. It took Snell another 10 pitches—29 in all—to escape.
“You knew right there it was gonna be a battle unless he was able to reset [his pitch count],” said manager Kevin Cash. “But a good lineup like the Astros is not gonna allow him to reset his pitch count. But he limited damage remarkably well.”
Snell got through the second in 13 pitches and the third in 15. But he unraveled in the fourth, grimacing when he walked Carlos Correa on a pitch he thought was in the zone, and then hopping up and down in frustration when he walked Yuli Gurriel on another close one.
“Manny Gonzalez is one of the best strike-ball umpires, and Blake kind of tested everything right around the plate and just couldn’t quite find the command that he was looking for,” said Cash.
Shortstop Willy Adames turned a line drive into a nifty double play to erase the first walk. But the next one snowballed: Aledmys Díaz chopped a changeup back to Snell, who let it dribble between his legs. He could not immediately find the ball. Everyone was safe. The bases were loaded. Snell recovered to induce a flyball from Martín Maldonado.
On a normal night—or in a normal season, in which seven-game series come with two off-days—Cash might have removed Snell after that frame. He had thrown 85 pitches and required two mound visits in the span of four batters. He was no longer the best option for a team with, as Cash memorably put it in a threat to the Yankees last month, “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 [mph].” But Cash thought about how tired those horses were, and he let Snell go back out.
“Given a fresh bullpen maybe we go a different route,” the skipper said. “We needed Blake to step up. We needed him to get through the fifth inning, and he did. It was huge. No discredit to Blake; it’s a credit to the Astros’ lineup. They’re gonna see a lot of pitches. They’re not gonna swing and miss. If you get greedy and try to strike ’em out, we’re gonna get high pitch counts every outing. They’re just not gonna strike out, they’ve proven them time and time again, so we gotta make quality pitches to get ’em out early in counts.”
Snell threw another 20 pitches, but he stole those last three outs. That left Cash with 12 to navigate—with a one-run lead, now that catcher Mike Zunino had singled home shortstop Willy Adames for the Rays’ first run scored without a homer in 19 innings. Cash first called upon righty John Curtiss, who resides perhaps a tier below the top three. Curtiss allowed a single and a walk, but he made it through the sixth. Next came righty Ryan Thompson, another second-level reliever. Thompson pitched a perfect seventh.
Lefty Aaron Loup, another level down, came on to start the eighth. Loup had not pitched since since Sept. 30, and he immediately hit lefty Michael Brantley. Because of the new three-batter minimum rule, Loup would now have to face at least two more hitters before he could be removed. He notched a strikeout, then allowed a walk and a single. Bases loaded, one out.
Cash had seen enough. That morning, he had decided that if he really needed a relief ace, Castillo was the only one available. Cash motioned to the bullpen. Castillo threw one pitch, an inside sinker, and induced a double play.
Cash let him finish the game. He will likely need to take Game 2 off. But because Snell got as far as he did, the Rays’ other horses will be ready to run.