Preview: Rays, Astros meet in big-time clash to open 2019 campaign
TV: FOX Sports Sun
TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 3 p.m.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The more Blake Snell thinks about beginning the season against Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros, the more excited Tampa Bay’s ace gets about a rare opening day matchup between a reigning Cy Young Award winner and the runner-up for the honor.
“It’s cool. It’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be a battle. I can’t wait for it,” Snell said, looking ahead to Thursday’s opener at Tropicana Field.
“I know he’s going to have his ‘A’ game, so he can expect the same,” the 26-year-old left-hander added. “It’s going to be fun going against him.”
It’ll be the first career opening day start for Snell — 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA a year ago, when the Rays won more games (90) than any club that didn’t make the playoffs.
The 36-year-old Verlander, 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA and an AL-leading 290 strikeouts in 214 innings last season, is making his 11th opening day start.
“Two really, really talented pitchers,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “One guy that kind of set the world on fire last year in Blake. And then Justin Verlander, he’s done it for what, a decade and half now? It will be fun to watch.”
Since the Cy Young Award was first presented in 1956, there have only been two reigning winners who wound up facing the runner-up on opening day the next season, with both instances occurring in 1979.
With Snell and Verlander going against each other, as well as NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets facing Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals, the number grows to four on Thursday.
In 1979, reigning AL winner Ron Guidry (Yankees) faced runner-up Mike Caldwell (Brewers) and NL winner Gaylord Perry (Padres) faced Burt Hooton (Dodgers).
“You couldn’t ask, as a baseball fan, for a better matchup right out the chute. It should be a lot of fun to watch,” Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier said.
“I would expect a pitcher’s duel type of matchup. We definitely have our work cut out for us, but those guys on the other side, they know what they’re facing as well. May the best team win,” Kiermaier added. “But we’re ready to go. We’re feeling good about ourselves.”
Both pitchers entered the matchup fresh off agreeing to lucrative contract extensions — Snell signing a $50 million, five-year deal through 2023 and Verlander getting a three-year contract that $66 million in guaranteed money for 2020 and 2021.
“I’ve had opening days everywhere (minor leagues) except here. I feel like I’m going to be just as excited. I don’t feel like it changes,” Snell said. “I don’t need a crowd to excite me to pitch. It helps, but I don’t think it’s really going to waver me.”
Snell is 1-1 with a 2.92 ERA in two career starts against Verlander. The young lefty made five starts against former Cy Young Award winners, going 3-0 with a 0.59 ERA.
“This is going to be one of the best pitching matchups you’ll see probably all year, and it’s happening day one, so it’s going to be pretty special,” reliever Ryne Stanek said.
Snell becomes the youngest Rays pitcher to start on opening day since David Price, Tampa Bay’s only other Cy Young winner, was 25 in 2011. In addition to leading the AL in wins and ERA, he fanned 221 batters in 180 2/3 innings last season.
“I don’t know if he could be better,” Cash said.
“I’m sure there’s some details within specific games or specific pitches that can improve, there’s no doubt. I think every pitcher will tell you, ideally they’d like to see fastball command improve,” the manager added. “But I would sound dumb to sit here and say that he’s got to get better. Just do what he did, or something close.”