Unstoppable Snell, Rays Bullpen Secure Game 1 Over Toronto

Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Blake Snell’s start in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series against the Toronto Blue Jays began so well it may have made even his own manager sweat. Snell hadn’t thrown more than 5.2 innings in any of his 11 starts this season, and he wasn’t expected to pitch far beyond that point on Tuesday. But then five innings came and went in the blink of an eye, and Snell looked untouchable. After just 65 pitches, he had eight strikeouts against just two walks and hadn’t allowed a single hit. Every projectile hurled from Snell’s left arm seemed to send shivers down the Blue Jays’ spines, but every impotent whiff also threatened the always-scientific Kevin Cash with a serious conundrum: How long could the Rays manager allow himself to stick with his starter in a 1-0 game before interrupting a playoff no-hitter himself, a sin many of his team’s fans may find unforgivable?

Alas, that breaking point never arrived. Rookie sensation Alejandro Kirk lined a single through the right side of the infield to lead off the sixth inning, and two batters later, Cash got to remove Snell more or less right where he wanted to — after 5.2 shutout innings and 19 batters faced. Snell finished with nine strikeouts for his troubles, a Rays playoff record, and his bullpen turned in a typically strong performance en route to securing a 3-1 victory. Top-seeded Tampa Bay can advance to the ALDS with a win in Game 2, which begins Wednesday at 4:07 p.m.

In opposing the former Cy Young winner in Snell, the Blue Jays turned to right-hander Matt Shoemaker, who made just his second appearance since hitting the injured list with shoulder inflammation on August 23. The decision to begin the series with Shoemaker, and not staff ace and eighty-million-dollar-man Hyun Jin Ryu, was a surprising one. But Toronto felt it would benefit more from using Ryu in Game 2, giving him an extra day of rest and hopefully placing a short day for the bullpen in the middle of the series instead of the very beginning. The Blue Jays’ unconventional pitching strategies — along with, possibly, Shoemaker’s health and low innings count this season — meant that the team only planned on using him for three innings at the start of the game before moving on with its bullpen.

For his part, Shoemaker made following through on that plan a controversial call for his own coaching staff. He started the game with three shutout frames, allowing just two hits and striking out a pair while throwing only 35 pitches. He looked plenty capable of succeeding well into the middle innings, but Shoemaker getting through three innings without allowing a run was never something that was supposed to throw off the plan — it was the plan. That part worked flawlessly. The next step of the plan, however, got off to a rocky start, as struggling left-hander Robbie Ray was brought into the game and immediately allowed a triple to Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. Three batters later, Arozarena scored on a wild pitch, and Tampa Bay had its first lead of the day.

Ray settled in nicely after that, retiring seven straight at one point and striking out five across three one-run innings of relief. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, that one run was more than enough cushion for Snell to work behind. The southpaw made it feel as though Tampa Bay had the upper hand even when the game was tied, which in turn made the one-run lead he was given in the fourth much more intimidating than it should have been.

Part of the reason for that was the degree to which the Blue Jays struggled to even make contact. Of the 35 swings Toronto hitters took against Snell, 18 of them missed, good for a whiff rate of 51%. That includes a staggering eight whiffs in 10 swings against the curveball and a total of 13 whiffs in 21 swings against Snell’s secondary stuff.

He handed a shutout performance over to right-hander Diego Castillo, who stranded a runner on base to end the sixth and recorded the first out of the seventh before allowing two runners to reach on a hit batsman and a single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Nick Anderson then entered the game and succeeded in keeping things tied, the pain of that missed opportunity burning even worse for the Blue Jays when A.J. Cole allowed a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to Manuel Margot, a player who dingered just once in the regular season.

Daunting as the 3-0 deficit was, Toronto maintained some fight. A Rowdy Tellez single and Cavan Biggio double brought the tying run to the plate with one out in the eighth inning against Anderson, and a sacrifice fly by Bo Bichette scored the team’s first run of the night. But if the bat-missing ability of the Rays’ pitchers wasn’t demoralizing enough for Blue Jays hitters to contend with, the seemingly flawless positioning of shortstop Willy Adames offered an additional layer of hopelessness. The small rallies the Blue Jays tried to mount in the seventh and eighth innings were both ended by slick grabs from Adames, as Joe Panik and Randal Grichuk each saw potential run-scoring hits get snatched out of the air. Tampa Bay right-hander Peter Fairbanks slammed the door with a pair of strikeouts in the ninth.

Runs could be just as difficult to score in Wednesday’s Game 2 contest, with Ryu taking the mound for the Blue Jays and the Rays countering with Tyler Glasnow. Ryu just wrapped up a very impressive season in his first year with Toronto, closing out with seven shutout innings against the Yankees on Thursday to bring his ERA down to 2.69 and his FIP to 3.01. He’s made two starts this season against Tampa Bay, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings on Opening Day before holding the Rays to one run on three hits in five innings on August 22.

Glasnow never faced the Blue Jays in the 2020 regular season, but he was plenty effective against the teams he did see. He owned a 4.08 ERA and 3.66 FIP in 57.1 innings — a step back from his stellar numbers pre-injury in 2019, as he allowed both many more balls to be hit in the air against him while also allowing a higher percentage of those to leave the yard. He’s also the only pitcher on his staff to pitch seven innings on multiple occasions this season, and he will be taking the mound after a full six days off. Put another way: If Toronto’s bats struggle again, Cash’s job will become a very easy one.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

The game was never tied…seems like a copyedit error in the graf about Castillo/Anderson

2 years ago
Reply to  O'Kieboomer

And it wasn’t three batters later that Arozarena scored. The sequence was triple, strikeout, then walk/wild pitch.