SEATTLE — Blake Snell has more memories of attending games at the Kingdome than of Safeco Field.
But that does not make Sunday’s game between the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays any less special.
Snell, the Tampa Bay lefthander who starred at Shorewood High School, will make his first major-league start at Safeco Field as the Rays and Mariners conclude their three-game series.
“It feels great. I was excited to see my dog, family, friends,” Snell said. “It’s always been a dream of mine, and to (start) against Felix (Hernandez) is going to be even more exciting.”
Hernandez, who debuted in 2005, already was the established Mariners ace by the time Snell graduated from high school in 2011. The Rays took Snell 52nd overall that year after he led the Thunderbirds to a state runner-up finish at the Class 3A state tournament.
“Ever since it’s been the King Felix Show,” Snell said. “I’ve watched him. He was someone I did idolize. He was in your backyard, and it’s hard not to. With what he’s done, it’s hard not to root for him.”
Snell has pitched at Safeco Field once before. That came in 2010 when he started a Class 4A state semifinal game against Richland as a junior. The Thunderbirds fell 1-0 and finished fourth after losing the consolation game the following day.
“It was cool, it was exciting, it was fun for my team,” Snell said. “For me personally I had a blast.”
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound southpaw has twice faced the Mariners in his career, but both previous starts came at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
His second-ever start came against Seattle in 2016 and the M’s tallied five runs — just one earned — in 3 ⅓ innings against Snell. He was far better in his second start last August when he shut out Seattle for seven innings in an eventual 3-0 Tampa Bay victory.
“Pitch good,” Rays manager Kevin Cash deadpanned, when asked if he had any special advice for Snell going into Sunday’s game. “Don’t over-amplify the situation. I know he’s going to be excited, and he should be excited. He’s going to have a lot of family and friends here, and you always want guys to do good in their hometown.”
Snell spent the 2016 season from mid-June on in the Rays rotation and finished 6-8 with a 3.54 earned-run average. He lost his first five decisions in 2017 before being demoted to the minors. He returned to Tampa six weeks later and finished the year with a 5-7 record and a 4.04 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 129⅓ innings.
This season Snell has emerged as the top-of-the-rotation starter the Rays envisioned when they selected him. He has a 7-3 record with a 2.56 earned-run average and 76 strikeouts in 70⅓ innings. Snell has not allowed an earned run in his past two starts and has allowed two or fewer earned runs in all but two of his dozen starts this season.
Today presents an interesting challenge.
“They’re a good-hitting team,” Snell said of the Mariners. “They’re stacked. They are very good right now, especially with them adding Denard (Span).”
That would the same Denard Span who, along with reliever Alex Colome became the latest Mariners acquired from the Rays via trade. The teams have consummated nine trades involving 28 players since Jerry Dipoto took over as Seattle’s general manager after the 2015 season. Former Mariners Brad Miller and Mallex Smith were in the lineup Friday while Jesus Sucre figures to get the start behind the plate today.
There is ample familiarity when these clubs get together despite the two teams being located the furthest apart in the American League. And for Snell, there is also the familiarity of coming home.
“Guys generally get amped up to (play in their hometown),” Cash said. “Just hopefully they don’t put too much pressure on themselves.”
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