Things looked promising in the early stages of the season opener for the Tampa Bay on Thursday, yet the Houston Astros went on to hand Blake Snell the Rays a 5-1 Opening Day defeat in front of a sellout crowd.
Snell took the mound in the first inning and mowed over the first three hitters in order, all on 13 pitches (10 strikes) — coaxing a pair of pop-ups and getting Alex Bregman to chase a filthy 80 mph off-speed to cap the frame.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay took an early lead in the bottom half of the inning. Austin Meadows led off the home half with an opposite-field home run, his first ever leadoff homer. It was the first Opening Day leadoff homer for the Rays since Gerald Williams in 2000 off Brad Radke.
I kind of blanked out, I don’t remember much. But being able to do that first at-bat of Opening Day it’s definitely special. .. It’s cool. I just put a swing on a good pitch that he made. I was able to get the barrel out and get a good swing on it.— Austin Meadows
Tommy Pham followed with a single to center, which extended his on-base hit streak to 33 games (dating back to last season) — the fourth-longest streak in franchise history. Yet Pham, who reached base twice, got caught in a pickle during Ji-Man Choi’s at-bat for the first out of the season. Choi and Brandon Lowe then grounded out and struck out (respectively), while Tampa Bay settled for just one run.
The Rays had another chance to extend that lead in the second inning when Yandy Diaz walked and Joey Wendle was hit by a pitch; the first of two on the day. However, Willy Adames and Mike Zunino both struck out, sandwiched around Kevin Kiermaier’s ground out fielder’s choice. That began a string of at-bats where Verlander retired 14 in a row, allowing Houston to take control of the contest.
After Snell worked around a Gurriel single for a scoreless second inning, he was roughed up as Houston took the lead in the third. Snell walked Robinson Chirinos on a close full-count pitch before number nine hitter, Jake Marisnick, worked six-pitch free pass of his own. On the very next pitch, George Springer blasted a curveball over the center field wall for a two-run lead.
In the fourth inning, Michael Brantley paid Snell back for a second inning swinging strikeout.
Brantley deposited a first-pitch fastball to right field, while Jose Altuve homered to left in the fifth.
I was happy with a lot of things I did. The only thing I was upset with was sequencing. I didn’t mix pitches like I should’ve been doing. I did it later, but to learn that, it took me giving up home runs.— Blake Snell
Last season, Snell allowed three homers only once, on May 13 against the Orioles, and two times when he allowed as many as five runs.
Snell is known for his repertoire of four pitches, yet on Thursday he leaned heavily on his fastball (35) and curveball (34) — 76% of the total number of pitches he threw.
I fell in love with the curveball and kept throwing it. It’s a good team, and that’s what they’re going to do. Frustrating, but a lot to learn. A lot to learn, and I’m happy about that.— Blake Snell
To his credit, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner was able to finish six innings on 91 pitches (55 strikes, 60% strike rate), although he allowed six hits and two walks, while striking out just three. Snell did not strike a batter out over the final four innings.
Jalen Beeks followed Snell and threw three scoreless innings, while fanning five (four swinging) and scattering four hits on 54 pitches (38 strikes, 70% strike rate).
Beeks topped out at 94.7 mph with his fastball and leaned on a new delivery where he pauses ever so slightly and hides the ball well on his lefthand side. If results are indicative of anything, his new delivery is effective and deadly.
Superlatives aside though, at the end of the day the Rays were held to just four hits, two by Pham. True, Justin Verlander is an outstanding hurler and was complimentary of Tampa Bay’s hitters, yet Mike Zunino, Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe, and Kevin Kiermaier looked abysmal at the plate and combined for eight strikeouts. Moving forward, there’s always tomorrow.
The New What Next
Game number two of the season is on Friday with another terrific pitching matchup. Charlie Morton (15-3, 3.13 ERA) will face his most recent team, pitching opposite of Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA).
Charlie Morton will make his first regular season start with the Rays since coming over from the Astros, whom he helped win a World Series in 2017. Morton, who made his first All-Star appearance in 2018 — thanks to a 3.13 ERA and 201 punch outs — inked a two-year deal during the winter. Last season he relied primarily on a whiffy 80 mph knuckle curveball, a 96 mph two-seam worm burning sinker, and a swing-and-miss 97 mph four-seam fastball with obvious tail, while also mixing in an 88 mph splitter with arm side fade, and a whiffy 89 mph cutter.
Gerrit Cole finished fifth in the AL Cy Young race after going 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA and 276 K’s across 200-1/3 innings of his first season with Houston. Cole performed to a .198 opponents’ average and a 1.03 WHIP, leading the AL by averaging a 12.4 K/9 as a starter. Cole has faced the Rays just twice in his career, going 0-1 with a 3.46 ERA across 13 total innings of work. He, however, was great in his lone start at the Trop, throwing six innings of three-run ball (just one earned) while fanning five last season. In 2018, he relied primarily on his 97 mph swing-and-miss four-seam fastball, while also mixing in an 89 mph hard slider, and an 83 mph worm-killer curveball. Key Matchups: Tommy Pham (7-12, 2 2B, HR, 3 RBI), Daniel Robertson (2-3), Joey Wendle (2-5, 2 RBI)
You can read about the series in our preview.