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Blake Snell's Gutsy ALCS Performance Shows Why He's An Ace

SAN DIEGO—Being an ace is about more than just having great stuff and command. It’s also about a pitcher being able to grind through when he doesn’t have his best stuff, minimize damage and give his team the innings it needs at critical junctures.

It took Blake Snell some time to figure that out. Now that he has, the 27-year-old lefthander has grown from talented young pitcher to reliable starter atop a playoff rotation.

Snell gutted through five workmanlike innings to hold the Astros to only one run, and the Rays bullpen took it the rest of the way in a 2-1 win in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

Snell needed 105 pitches to get through five innings and dealt with considerable traffic on the bases. He gave up six hits, walked two and managed only two strikeouts against one of baseball’s most disciplined offenses. But with the Rays desperate need for length after their top relievers were exhausted in the Division Series against the Yankees, Snell found a way.

He allowed a home run to Jose Altuve as the second batter of the game, but didn’t allow another run. He stranded another runner in scoring position in the first, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth and retired the side in order in the fifth despite going to a full count on each batter.

“I know I needed to get deep into the game,” Snell said. “I knew with what the bullpen did a couple days ago, I wanted to try to help them out as much as I could. Me being able to go five but battle the entire time, those guys have a lot of professional at-bats and they laid off a lot of good pitches. I’m happy with it, because I know how tough it was.”

It was somewhat surprising Snell even came out for the top of the fifth given he was at 85 pitches and the top of the Astros order was due up. But the Rays badly needed one more inning out of Snell for the sake of their bullpen, and he delivered. He fell behind 3-0 on George Springer but battled back to strike him out swinging over a slider. He alternated balls and strikes to both Altuve and Michael Brantley until the count was full, then induced ground balls from both.

“The adjustments Blake made to get into the ballgame as deep as he could, that’s the stuff that may go overlooked sometimes, but that’s the definition of an ace there,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “He got us as deep as he could, ran his pitch count up and gave us a chance.”

The ability to do that consistently is something of a new development for Snell. He was a 2011 supplemental first-round pick on the strength of his left arm, and his prodigious natural talent helped make him the 2015 Minor League Player of the Year. He appeared to break through as a true ace when he went 21-5, 1.89 and won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018, but took a step back in 2019. He lasted less than four innings in more than a quarter of his starts through July, then had elbow surgery that limited his endurance when he returned in September. Even when he was healthy last year, he never had a stretch of more than five consecutive starts pitching at least five innings.

That changed this year. Including his three postseason starts, Snell has given the Rays 11 consecutive outings of at least five innings dating back to the regular season.

None were bigger than Sunday, especially with no off days in this year’s ALCS and the potential for seven games in seven days.

“It definitely played a factor,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Given a fresh bullpen maybe we go a different route. But we needed Blake to step up. We needed him to get through the fifth inning and he did. It was huge.”

Snell helped himself and got some help from his defense. He picked off Springer in the third inning after a one-out single to halt a potential big inning with the heart of the Astros lineup due up. With two on and no outs in the fourth, he gave up a sharp liner that shortstop Willy Adames snagged and stepped on second base for a double play. After the Astros re-loaded the bases in the inning when Snell failed to come up with a comebacker, he settled in and got Martin Maldonado to fly out and end the threat.

“I had to battle the entire game, had to make a lot of pitches,” he said. “That’s a team once they get it going, they stay hot, so to be able to shut it down, that was very important.”

Snell’s effort gave the Rays offense time to make up their early deficit. Randy Arozarena continued his postseason stardom with a home run in the fourth inning to tie it, and Zunino added an RBI single in the fifth for the go-ahead run to put Snell in line for the win.

The Rays bullpen finished it off with four scoreless innings, headlined by Diego Castillo entering and, on his first pitch, getting Yuli Gurriel to ground out with the bases loaded to end the eighth.

If the Rays had to get more than those four innings from their bullpen, it might have been dicey. But Snell stepped up and made sure that wouldn’t be a problem, the sign of a true No. 1 starter.

"He really competed well,” Cash said. “Blake kind of tested everything right around the plate and just couldn’t quite find the command he was looking for, but he made some big, big pitches.”

Brandon Lowe Cooperneillgetty

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