Blake Snell’s return to the Bulls conjured up memories of his first stint in Durham. The lefthander was dominant in his first start since being sent down from Tampa Bay. The Bulls also got a burst of power to help pace a 6-1 win over Gwinnett that extended the Bulls lead in the International League South Division to five games.
Snell played parts of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Bulls, striking out 147 batters in just 107 1/3 innings pitched to earn a promotion to the Major Leagues. When he started this season 0-4 with a 4.00 ERA in Tampa, the Rays sent him back to Triple-A.
“Snell comes down from the big leagues with some things to work on,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said, “and he went out there and executed pretty well.”
Tops on Snell’s laundry list of improvements was throwing strikes. His first nine pitches of the game were in the strike zone, and he finished with 72 strikes in 107 pitches.
“His strike percentage was where we hoped it would be,” Sandberg said. “He pumped strikes.”
Indeed, Snell threw 67 percent of his pitches for strikes, good for second best on the Bulls team.
Snell also needed to work on making batters miss. Mission accomplished. Batters whiffed on 24 pitches in the game, the most swing and misses by a Bulls pitcher in game this season. Snell induced swing and misses on 21 percent of his pitches, and Gwinnett batters failed to make contact on 42 percent of their swings against Snell. Both percentages are tops on the Durham staff by a large margin. By comparison, Bulls pitchers entered the game with percentages of 14 and 29, respectively.
Snell finished with 12 strikeouts, one shy of his career high in a game, which was set in his final start with the Bulls before getting called up last season. Bulls relievers added six strikeouts, giving the staff a season-high 18 in the game.
“We don’t set out to get strikeouts,” Sandberg said. “We just have a lot of guys with swing and miss stuff.”
Gwinnett took an early lead, with the second batter of the game coming around to score, but Snell wasn’t concerned.
“I knew my fastball was working,” he said. “That’s one of the things I wanted to do: Throw strikes with my fastball.”
Only one box was left unchecked on Snell’s to-do list.
“I wanted to go deeper into the game,” he said. Snell threw 31 pitches in the first inning and had 87 through four innings. Sandberg came out to remove him after Snell registered the first out in the sixth inning.
“That’s one of the things they wanted me to work on down here,” he said. “So I’ll have to try to go deeper into the game next time.”
The Bulls’ offense gave Snell plenty of breathing room with a five-run fourth-inning rally capped by a Johnny Field’s grand slam. Mallex Smith and Jake Hager added solo shots as all of Durham’s runs came by way of the long ball. All three of Smith’s home runs this season have led off games for the Bulls.
“Home runs continue to be huge for our offense right now,” Sandberg said.