February 2, 2023

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Snell makes return, rounds out loaded staff

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PHILADELPHIA — Blake Snell is back, and at long last, the entirety of the Padres’ rotation is healthy. That’s the important part here.

But Snell’s return to the mound on Wednesday night in Philadelphia did not go according to plan. The Padres’ left-hander labored extensively, allowing three runs across 3 2/3 innings. Making his first start since he was sidelined in April with a groin injury, Snell’s stuff was sharp, but he nibbled too much, walking three and watching his pitch count balloon to 84 pitches in the fourth.

In the meantime, Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler had no such issues. Last year’s second-place NL Cy Young finisher looked the part. He tossed seven scoreless innings, striking out nine Padres in a 3-0 victory for Philadelphia.

Wheeler’s outing was the type of dominant showing that Snell has proven is well within his capabilities. Near the end of last season, Snell had begun to do it on a regular basis, before his injury first flared up in mid-September. It had fully subsided by Spring Training this year — until a recurrence as Snell was warming up for his first start of the season on April 10 in Arizona. It cost him seven weeks.

“Feels good to be back with the boys,” Snell said. “I’ve been watching for a month and a half now. You want to be a part of it, especially with how special this team is. So that felt good. Stuff-wise, it was really good, I’m happy with that. Just the walks killed me.”

That’s been something of a familiar refrain for Snell. When he’s struggled, it’s rarely because his stuff is hittable. It’s because he’s put himself into precarious situations with walks and high pitch counts.

To that end, Snell didn’t seem too concerned that his rocky first start would carry over into his next one, presumably against the Brewers next week at Petco Park. This was, after all, Snell’s first outing of the year in a tough environment, against a tough lineup.

“Get ahead and my stuff will play, and we’ll be good,” Snell said. “… I’m in a really good headspace. I like where I’m at. We’ll continue to build.”

Now that Snell and Mike Clevinger are back, the Padres have seven capable starting pitching options on their roster. That left them with a few decisions to make ahead of this week’s series in Philly.

They came to an intriguing conclusion: In both games, they’ve employed a piggybacking strategy using starters MacKenzie Gore and Nick Martinez as long relievers. On Tuesday night, it was Gore who followed Clevinger, as the Padres shut out the Phillies.

On Wednesday, Snell didn’t offer such a clean handoff. He exited with two outs and a runner on second in the fourth. Craig Stammen recorded the final out of the inning, before Martinez took over in the fifth.

From there, Martinez dominated, firing four scoreless frames. He struck out six and allowed just two hits. Martinez, like Gore the night before, noted that the coaching staff’s communication was key in allowing him to thrive in such a role.

“It wasn’t too different, because I had a pretty good idea I was pitching today,” said Martinez, who spent a couple weeks pitching in relief in Japan in 2020, but hadn’t appeared out of the bullpen in the big leagues since ‘17. “I sort of treated it like a start … and prepared myself as if it was. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but I just feel comfortable pitching.”

The Padres maintain that to succeed in a six-month season, it takes a whole lot more than five starting pitchers. They learned that lesson the hard way last year, when injuries and attrition took a serious toll.

For now, however, with Snell back in the fold, they can reap the benefits of having seven bona fide starters on the staff. Over the past two nights, Martinez and Gore have now combined for seven scoreless innings of relief.

“It’s just the competitive nature, I think,” said Padres acting manager Ryan Christenson. “These guys were part of the rotation. We got a couple of guys healthy and coming back, and they want to stay here, they want to be a contributing force.

“They’re competing to be back in the rotation. If something happens, they want to stay sharp, they want to stay fresh. Nick showed a lot tonight coming out of the bullpen. Just like MacKenzie did last night.”

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