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Blake Snell ‘pretty damn good’ in final tuneup before SF Giants debut

Blake Snell ‘pretty damn good’ in final tuneup before SF Giants debut

The Giants' newly signed Cy Young winner threw a sim game at Dodger Stadium in his final tuneup before he debuts Monday.

LOS ANGELES — Draped over the laundry cart in the middle of the Giants’ clubhouse Wednesday afternoon was a solitary gray jersey, embroidered on the back with the No. 7. The most important event at Dodger Stadium took place five hours before first pitch, which meant Blake Snell could hit the showers early.

In his final tuneup before making his club debut, Snell threw five innings against Giants hitters off the mound inside Chavez Ravine. Now begins the countdown to the next time he puts on the uniform and toes the rubber, which will come Monday at Oracle Park against the Washington Nationals.

“When you start pitching in the big leagues, you just get this feeling where you start locking in,” Snell said. “I felt it a little bit when I got here, just trying to get ready just in case I did pitch. I’m excited to see how the next couple days go.”

The Giants did their best to replicate the adrenaline that accompanies a real major-league outing, first setting up a nighttime start in Arizona against the team’s Double-A hitters and then having Wednesday’s come on a big-league mound against big-league hitters.

But with a tarp partially covering the infield, a screen behind the pitcher’s mound and no fans in the stands or fielders behind him, Snell’s five simulated innings against Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski and Tyler Fitzgerald were more about fine-tuning his arsenal with adjustments he couldn’t make against minor-leaguers.

“I haven’t been hit facing Double-A guys. Today it was more make mistakes, see it get hit and learn from it,” Snell said. “The changeup and curveball are where they need to be. The fastball the last couple innings was where it needs to be. Just a lot of life on those pitches.”

Watching from behind home plate, assistant pitching coach J.P. Martinez offered a three-word assessment: “Pretty damn good.”

“We already know that the curveball and the changeup are really good,” he said. “From what I was hearing, the fastball’s pretty fuzzy and the slider’s pretty tough to pick up. I think with a fastball or a slider that’s a really good quality. Sometimes you can see pretty pure spin on a four-seam or you see a dot on a slider. Either one of those is tough to pick up on his, so that makes the two pitches blend a little bit.”

Fitzgerald echoed that assessment, saying it was “just the traditional Blake Snell. When he gets the heater and the breaking ball tunneling together, it’s devastating.”

Lots has been made of Snell’s walk rate — the highest in the majors, even on his way to winning his second Cy Young last season — but finding the strike zone wasn’t an issue Wednesday. Snell threw about 75 pitches and according to Martinez landed close to 60 of them for strikes.

“There was a stretch in there where he threw 18 straight strikes,” Martinez said. “You just see it in his comfort on the mound. That was the biggest thing for me, watching how comfortable he looked out there working through the windup and the stretch. I just think he has an extremely good feel for the parts of the zone that he needs to go to, which pitch types and how to get it there.”

Location is most key for Snell’s slider, which he said is the pitch that takes the longest to lock in. He left a few up, which Fitzgerald and Slater punished. But by the time he was finished, the pitch was dotting the bottom of the strike zone, saying, “I have a really good slider when it’s down. Really good. When it’s up, it just cuts.”

Snell’s fastball started at around 94 mph but ticked up as the outing went on, he said. That stands in contrast to his last appearance in Arizona, when he said he was beginning to feel gassed in his fourth and final inning. Last year, his heater averaged 95.5 mph.

“Every stop the fastball’s been better,” Snell said. “It’s a whole different pitch that it was three weeks ago. I’m really excited about that.”

Three weeks ago, the extent of Snell’s throwing had come against high school hitters, splitting his time between Shoreline Community College north of Seattle and his agency’s Southern California headquarters. When his elongated free agency finally came to an end, signing a two-year, $62 million deal with the Giants, “I got here, and it’s like, ‘I’m not where I thought I was.’ “

One impression Slater took away was, “It was cool to see him working through his stuff, trying to get like six weeks of spring training into two weeks,” he said. “I thought it was really impressive the adjustments he was able to make over the course of the live. He looked really, really good by the end of it.”

Snell could have made his first start here against the Giants’ top rival and one of the most intimidating lineups in baseball, but he said, “I love playing the best teams. I’m just not ready.” Breezing through his first two sim games against minor-league competition, Snell told Melvin he wanted one more tuneup.

“You can’t lie to yourself. It really helped that I had known Bob for a while and we trusted each other. That helped me a lot,” Snell said. “I was like, ‘Bob, I’m not getting better. I’m doing what I should do. I want to face big league guys and make mistakes and see what happens.’”

The trust factor goes both ways, with the manager entrusting his newly signed starter to build up on his terms despite taking up a valuable spot on the 26-man roster. Snell pitched for Melvin the past two seasons in San Diego, where pitching coach Bryan Price also served as an adviser.

“We kind of know him well enough to know that he needed this one,” Melvin. said. “It probably would have been a little quick to jam him in there, like today, in a big-league game.”

It sure was tempting, though, with Snell’s historic success against the Dodgers and the importance of these division games. It’s where Melvin admitted he envisioned Snell making his first start when he signed last month. But the manager listened to his starting pitcher.

Will the wait be be worth it?

“We’ll see on Monday, right?” Melvin said. “This was important for him. I really do believe that he needed to face some big-league hitters. I know he felt much better about what he needs to do and where his stuff is facing this type of opponent.”

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