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Rays’ Snell continues Cy Young case against Orioles

ST. PETERSBURG — Even without his sharpest stuff, Rays starter Blake Snell still looked like a Cy Young Award candidate on Friday.

Snell continued one of the greatest single seasons by a pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays franchise history in a 14-2 win over the visiting Baltimore Orioles in the series opener at Tropicana Field.

“I felt like I was in the zone for the most part,” Snell said. “I felt like I threw the fastball where I wanted to except for like four or five pitches… They were just knicking and knacking a lot of things.”

Snell picked up his 18th win of the year after allowing two earned runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings. Both runs Snell surrendered both came on a home run surrendered to the last batter he faced, Andy Rickard. Snell was especially dominant to start the game with five of his first six outs recorded coming via strikeout despite not having his breaking stuff. He still struck out nine and walked none.

“He’s got four competitive pitches,” catcher Nick Ciuffo said. “So if one pitch isn’t 100 percent on that night, he can use the curveball. If the curveball’s not on he can use the slider. If the slider’s not on he’s got the changeup. The reason he’s so succesful is because there are very few nights where he doesn’t have a pitch he can do damage with and strike guys out with.”

Snell, who was named the AL Pitcher of the Month for August, needs just two more victories to match Price’s 20 wins in his Cy Young Award-winning season of 2012. Snell, who could take the mound four more times this season, is already on pace to eclipse Price’s marks in ERA (2.06 vs. 2.56), WHIP (1.01 vs. 1.10) and Ks/9 (10.5 vs. 8.74).

“He’s performed like (an ace) this year and it’s tough to argue that he hasn’t,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We talk about it a lot and we’ll continue to talk about it. I guess when the day comes when we’re not talking about it then it becomes a normal fifth day for him. If that’s the case, he’s become a really special pitcher.”

The win also pushed the Rays’ home winning streak to nine games, the third-longest in franchise history, and leaves the team just seven and a half games back of Oakland for the second Wild Card spot with 22 games remaining. Despite the recent success, Cash warned about players getting too caught up with scoreboard watching at this point in the season.

“I hope we keep kind of going about our business the way we have been,” Cash said.

Homer Happy

The Rays’ offense, which had been outscored by Baltimore 84-51 in their previous sixteen games this season, gave Snell plenty of cushion to work with thanks to a team-wide power surge. Ciuffo got it started in the bottom of the second with his first career home run — a three-run shot to left field against Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy. Ciuffo, who finished his night 2-for-4 with a walk, also drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the seventh. He credited the day off and having several friends and family in the stands for loosening up a bit.

“I got away from it for a day and had a chance to relax,” he said. “I felt a lot more calm at the plate and behind the plate. I got a good pitch to hit and didn’t miss it.”

Kevin Kiermaier continued his torrid pace at the plate on Friday, hitting his third home run in his last two games in the bottom of the third. Kiermaier, who also had a bunt single in the second, is now 9-for-15 with five extra-base hits in the month of September to jump his batting average on the season from .198 to .218.

Tommy Pham, who continues to battle soreness in his right foot after fracturing a bone in August, tacked on another Rays run by with a solo blast to dead center in the bottom of the fifth. The home run, his 17th of the season, extended his hitting streak to nine games.

Ji-Man Choi completed the rout with a grand slam off of Orioles reliever Ryan Meisinger in the bottom of the sixth. Choi, who also walked twice in the game, has reached base safely in 18 consecutive games.

D-Rob Eyes 2018 Return

The Rays moved utility man Daniel Robertson to the 60-day disabled list on Tuesday but left the door open for a return this season should Tampa Bay make it to the postseason. Robertson, who had surgery on his left thumb on August 7, rejoined the team on Friday for the first time since having the cast removed. Before his injury, the versatile Robertson was batting .260 with nine home runs and 34 RBI in 340 plate appearances while playing above-average defense at multiple positions.

“It’s nice to know that with them making that move that I can take my time with it and not rush anything,” Robertson said. “I’ll be the cheerleader for the next couple weeks and if we make it to the Wild Card game or something, I’ll be available for that.”

Robertson admitted that a lot would have to happen for that to become a possibility but he is doing as much as possible to stay in shape —including running and throwing drills and even some one-handed work in the batting cages— if it does. Baseball Prospectus gives the team just a 0.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Robertson was optimistic that he will have another at-bat in a game this season, alluding to Tampa Bay’s 2011 squad that went on to win the Wild Card despite being eight games back with 23 games left in the season.

“I’ll root these guys on and hopefully they can make some magic that we’ve see here a couple of times,” he said.

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Up Next

The Rays will hope to continue their recent home dominance in the second game of the series versus the lowly Orioles on Saturday at 6:10 p.m. Tampa Bay will go with Diego Castillo (3-2, 3.48 ERA) as the opener for the bullpen day. Castillo retired all six batters he faced the last time he was put in that role. He will be opposed by Baltimore starter David Hess (3-9, 5.27). All fans in attendance will receive a Rays 20th anniversary photo viewer.

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