LOS ANGELES — Two months after the 2020 World Series, the San Diego Padres acquired Blake Snell in an overt challenge to their longtime tormentors in the National League West. Snell had not been allowed to complete a sixth inning in the biggest game of his life, and the Padres intended to more fully unleash him against the same Los Angeles Dodgers franchise that bested Snell and the Tampa Bay Rays for a postseason-bubble championship.
Almost three years later, parts of that vision have come true. Snell, since the beginning of 2021, has recorded a 2.58 ERA in 13 regular-season starts against the Dodgers. He has started a victory over the Dodgers in the 2022 National League Division Series. Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, he bolstered his National League Cy Young candidacy with six scoreless innings. He yielded a bloop single to NL MVP contender Mookie Betts to lead off the bottom of the first. He did not surrender another hit.
Considering the quality of the opponent and the date on the calendar, it might have been the most impressive outing of the left-hander’s superlative season. It also was a reminder of what San Diego could soon miss: It was almost certainly Snell’s final time pitching for the Padres against the Dodgers, a probability that loomed in his mind before he took the mound.
“Yeah,” Snell said after the Padres’ 6-1 win. “I hope not.”
Whether it was lip service or genuine sentiment, the Padres no longer operate in a bubble. They did so during a shortened season that encouraged them to spring for not only Snell but also Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. Now, so much has changed, and it can be difficult to appraise Snell’s dominance in a vacuum.
Darvish was shut down this week with a stress reaction in his throwing elbow. Musgrove, still rehabbing inflammation in his throwing shoulder, could be shut down in the coming days. The two veterans are off to worrisome starts to lucrative extensions. Snell, meanwhile, is headed for a payday that is expected to exceed the Padres’ comfort level.
The Padres’ timing as a team, all year, has been an unmitigated disaster. Behind Snell’s pitching and home runs by Juan Soto and Luis Campusano, they claimed their first series win at Dodger Stadium since April 2021. Yet that merely bumped their record to 69-78 while nudging their playoff odds, according to FanGraphs, to 0.1 percent.
Snell’s timing in a contract year, meanwhile, could hardly be better.
“He seems to be on a little bit of a mission,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Last 20 starts for the @Padres‘ Blake Snell:
He’s the first pitcher in MLB history to have a sub-1.50 ERA with 12.50+ K/9 over a 20-start span in a single season. pic.twitter.com/Zj7E4goA9v
— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) September 14, 2023
Snell’s ERA sits at 2.43, lowest among qualifying pitchers. He has not permitted more than three runs in any of his last 21 starts, a run that has seen him go 13-3 with a 1.33 ERA. He could soon become the seventh pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in both leagues. He also could become the first pitcher ever to finish with a lower ERA than anyone else and also more walks than anyone else, a testament to Snell’s improved ability to power his way out of traffic.
Conversations in May with pitching coach Ruben Niebla helped convince Snell, long known for being effectively wild, to begin shedding his prior tendency to let walks snowball into runs. He has done it before: In 2018, when Snell won the American League Cy Young with Tampa Bay, he posted the sixth-highest strand rate — 88 percent — since 1961.
Wednesday, Snell held a vaunted offense to Betts’ bloop hit and Betts’ third-inning walk. His strand rate is up to 85.9 percent. No pitcher this season has done a better job disposing of base runners. In recent history, few lefty starters have been as overpowering as Snell has been since late May.
“Cy Young-dominant, right?” Melvin said. “I mean, that’s what he’s digging for. He’s done it before, he knows what it feels like. … He throws hard, he throws four pitches. He can throw his changeup and really any of his pitches (when) behind in the count. And when you throw that hard, you have to get your bat ready for the fastball, and then everything else plays.
“It’s just like a hitter that’s on a roll, and you can’t stop him.”
The Dodgers, for all their victories, have had as tough a time as any opponent. Snell has faced them more than a dozen times while in a Padres uniform, and only once has Los Angeles nicked him for more than three runs. Padres coaches say the 30-year-old has acquired a keen awareness of opposing hitters’ tendencies and weaknesses.
“I play the Dodgers a lot, so you got to switch it up,” Snell said. “You got to change it. Sometimes you keep it the same. You know, it’s just like a chess match. You go back and forth with each hitter on what you’re gonna do.”
When he will next draw this particular matchup remains to be seen. The Dodgers, of course, have owned the meetings in which they do not face Snell. The Padres have again been exposed as possessing inferior depth. They could try to re-sign Snell, but they find themselves in their present predicament in large part because of ambitious investments, and now Snell’s price is soaring; some team, perhaps, will feel compelled to award the pending free agent $200 million or so this winter. His current team has spent months slowly sinking into oblivion.
Has such incongruence been difficult to process for an apparent Cy Young favorite?
“I’ve loved this season,” Snell said. “It sucks that we’re not where we want to be win-loss-wise. But the one thing that I will say is being here has taught me how to have fun through the good, through the bad, and I think it’s helped me as a player a lot.”
In a vacuum, at least one Padre’s season has been a resounding success.
(Photo of Blake Snell: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)