Blake Snell’s disastrous return to Tropicana Field

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – All hail the conquering hero.

That may have worked for the Legions returning to Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. Perhaps the same adulation and worship could be reserved for left-hander Blake Snell.

On Sunday, the 31-year-old made a triumphant return to his baseball birthplace and faced the Tampa Bay Rays, his former mates for the first time in Florida at Tropicana Field. Dealt from Tampa Bay to San Diego on Dec. 29, 2020, for four players of minor value, Snell then spent parts of three seasons with the Padres before signing, after a protracted holdout, with the San Francisco Giants on March 19 of this year.

The homecoming was as catastrophic as it was forgettable. Snell’s start was precarious, at best, and the experience turned bitter and soar. Clearly, Snell did not bring his A-game and lost control of his celebrated return to Tropicana Field in a hurry.

The result was an undistinguished 9-4 defeat to the Rays before 19,470. Snell lasted four innings, allowed six hits, surrendered seven earned runs, and now has a 12.86 ERA for his opening two starts for San Francisco.

“I have to get better,” Snell said quietly afterward. “I have to locate pitches better and once I throw strikes, I’ll be fine. I have to get in the zone, attack and then I’ll be fine.”

Initially signed by the Rays as a power pitcher with a notorious fastball, maturity was evident. According to Bob Melvin, his current manager, “he is different now than earlier in his career. He knows what works for him on a given night. Earlier, it was strictly fastball and now, he has a four-pitch mix. As a hitter, you can’t rely on the fastball all the time and his mix played well last year.”

Against the Rays, Snell began with his signature fastball and that pitch clocked in the mid-90s. Throughout the initial innings of this one, and especially in the first, an effective breaking ball was elusive.

Two examples.

Given an early 1-0 lead, that quickly evaporated. A change that hung over the plate was drilled by the shortstop by Randy Arozarena and that scored Yandy Diaz that knotted the game at 1-1. Then, another change failed to locate and this time, Amed Rosario drilled a two-run homer into the left field bleachers. After the initial inning, Snell was down 3-1, and things unraveled. The nightmare was capped by a three-run homer from Rene Pinto in the fourth and Snell exited thereafter.

“The (Arozarena) single was a bad pitch, and that was up,” Snell offered. “A change-up to Rosario should have been down and away and not up and in the middle. If I locate, it’s a completely different at-bat. I could go on and one, but location has to get better.”

Logistics aside, Snell’s march into Tropicana Field was as much a spectacle as a date with destiny. The start on Sunday was the second time he faced the Rays and the other was a 2-0 victory on June 17 last season in San Diego. That effort was representative of a 14-9 season, a 2.25 ERA, and earned Snell’s second Cy Young award.

The first Cy Young award in 2018 with the Rays became one illustrious reason for Snell’s celebrated return. That was a 21-5 season, and 1.89 ERA in 31 starts. Both the wins and ERA led the American League, and his 221 strikeouts was the second most in his nine-year major league career.

Despite the forgetful afternoon on Sunday, the environment within Tropicana Field was cordial, respectful and courteous. The contributions Snell made to the Tampa Bay organization were front-and-center and memories lingered.

Through his tenure with the Rays lasted five years, Snell managed a 42-30 mark, and a 3.24 ERA in 108 starts. His winning percentage of .583 is third best in franchise history and only David Price (.636) and Jeff Niemann (.606) rank higher.

“There were many people which continued to (Snell’s) success here,” said Kevin Cash, the Tampa Bay manager. “Give Blake all the credit but (pitching coach Kyle Synder) had a significant impact. Blake and Kyle came up to the big leagues together and I know Blake really trusted Kyle. Any time there was an issue, and before Blake got to the big leagues, he called Kyle and a special relationship formed. We all knew what he meant to the organization while he was here and helped us win games.”

On the diamond … with that 9-3 win, the Rays took their third consecutive series. Collectively, they slammed four homers. Off the bat of Amed Rosario, Isaac Paredes and two from Rene Pinto, the Rays’ nine runs was a season-high. Previously, they defeated Toronto 8-2 on March 29 and Colorado 8-6 on April 6.

Baseball history … on this date, April 14, 1910, President William Howard Taft threw out the first ceremonial pitch in major league history. To commence a game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics, Taft, who was an avid golfer, began a tradition that symbolizes the connection between America’s pastime and the presidency.

Next – the Rays home stand continues Monday night against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and a four -game series. Right-hander Zach Efflin (1-2, 6.35 ERA) opens the series for Tampa and draws lefthander Patrick Sandoval (1-2, 6.57) as his mound opponent. The series continues with games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and concludes with a Thursday matinee.

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