While walking out to take infield practice before Shorewood’s Class 4A state semifinal game against Richland at Safeco Field in 2010, former Thunderbirds flamethrower Blake Snell turned to his coach, Wyatt Tonkin, and proclaimed, “Some day, I’m going to be back on this field. And I’m going to be pitching in the majors.”
Eight years later, Snell made that prediction come true, striking out 12 and allowing just two hits over six innings June 3 in a 2-1 loss to his hometown team in his first MLB start at Safeco Field.
It was a sign to his hometown he hadn’t just arrived in the majors, but was excelling.
On Wednesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America awarded the Tampa Bay Rays pitcher the 2018 American League Cy Young Award, with Snell edging out Houston’s Justin Verlander and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber in the voting.
Snell received 17 first-place votes and a total of 169 points. Verlander received the other 13 first-place votes and finished with 154 points. Kluber, a two-time winner of the award, was a distant third with 71 points.
“I was kind of overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to think,” said Tonkin, who formed tears in his eyes when he saw his former player’s name appear as the winner. “It was great to see him on TV with his family and him celebrating. … I was pumping my fist and yelling, ‘Yeah!’ It was great.
“I’m really, really proud of him, because he’s very driven and his commitment to get to the big leagues and was very driven to the be the best that he could be. He proved it.”
The 25-year-old southpaw compiled an AL best 1.89 ERA and 21 wins in just his second full season in the big leagues. Perhaps the clinching statistic in favor of Snell was his 9-2 record and 2.00 ERA in 12 starts against all five AL playoff teams.
“I mean, he deserved it. It was fun to watch him throughout the year,” Tonkin said. “I taped the games I could and I would come home and I would watch him and it got into July and August and I was like, ‘Man, he’s got a chance.”
On Tuesday, he won the Warren Spahn award for the best left-handed pitcher in baseball.
“It means a whole lot,” Snell said on the MLB Network awards show. “It was something I wanted to achieve this year.”
Over a four-year career at Shorewood, Snell struck out 218 batters over 131 innings and compiled a 1.31 ERA. Following his senior year, Tampa Bay selected him with the 52nd pick in the 2011 MLB draft. “Those four years, those were pretty special,” Tonkin said.
Tonkin most remembers Snell’s tenacious competive side and magnetic personality. Tonkin recelled Snell’s common saying of “Ah come on, coach,” accompanied with an ear-to-ear, toothy smile whenever Tonkin delivered directions at practice. It was always followed with a cutthroat gaze from Snell when it was time to step on the field and get serious.
“He was a practical joker, a great guy to be with off the field and he had this great big kid-like smile,” Tonkin said. “But you put him in between the lines and he would just compete like crazy. He was just a competitor. He just lifted everybody around him that took the field.
“It was a fun four years and it went by too fast.”
Snell is the youngest player to win the AL Cy Young since Seattle’s Felix Hernandez captured the award at 24-years-old in 2010, the same year Snell was a junior at Shorewood. Back then, Hernandez was his idol.
It’s fitting perhaps that his aforementioned 12-strikeout gem at Safeco Field came against his former hero, now turned contemporary.
In eight years, Snell has come full circle, from the ambitious and confident teenager declaring his future an illustrious career to a Cy Young winner.
“I’m not surprised that he would be a Cy Young candidate someday. I’m surprised at how fast it came,” Tonkin said. “You could tell his senior year that he had big-league stuff, but to get to where he is and be able to command and do what he’s doing this fast, that’s incredibly impressive.”