In the sixth inning of Game 6 against the Dodgers, with his team’s championship hopes on the line, Blake Snell was on his way to a legendary performance. He was pitching a shutout; he had struck out nine with zero walks; he was preventing the top of the order from even putting balls in play. All of these terrifying hitters—Betts, Seager, Muncy, Bellinger—were coming up to the plate and looking awful, like they had never even seen a baseball before.
And then, without warning, Kevin Cash put a stop to it.
Though Justin Turner’s incomprehensible decision to celebrate on the field without a mask after getting a positive COVID-19 test result has certainly taken some heat off, the Rays manager’s choice to pull his Cy Young-winning starter in the middle of a near flawless night with 3.2 innings left to play will still be the in-game moment that everybody remembers from Tampa’s World Series defeat. After just 73 pitches and two hits allowed, a clearly unhappy Snell was unceremoniously replaced by reliever Nick Anderson, who despite a strong regular season had allowed runs in each of his previous six postseason appearances.
Anderson almost instantly extended that streak. He gave up a double to Mookie Betts, threw a wild pitch that sent Barnes home, and then watched as Betts made a brilliant dash for home on a fielder’s choice. The Dodgers would hold onto that 2-1 lead until Mookie made it a 3-1 final with a dinger off Pete Fairbanks in the eighth.
“Well, yeah, I regret the decision because it didn’t work out,” Cash said afterwards. “But you know, I feel like the thought process was right. … If we had to do it over again, I would have the utmost confidence in Nick Anderson to get through that inning.”
There are a few points that could justify taking Snell out in that moment. The one that Cash mentioned was the gospel of “third time through the order”—the fact that pitchers in general struggle more when hitters are seeing their deliveries multiple times, and that a team with a variety of strong arms like the Rays benefits greatly from showing them inconsistent looks. There’s also the reality that Snell never pitches deep into games, having gone 21 straight starts without finishing six innings. Additionally, there’s evidence from the inning’s first four pitches that Snell had lost a bit off his stuff, as he hung a curve to A.J. Pollock (who popped out) and let Barnes hit an easy slider back up the middle.
But those arguments are countered not just by Betts’s league-worst inability to hit lefties this year, or the fact that Snell’s numbers in particular don’t fall in line with the “third time” dogma, but also just the visceral feeling of dominance that Snell exuded throughout his start. Everyone watching on TV or in that ballpark could see how foolish he made the Dodgers seem. For five innings, Snell looked like the best pitcher in the AL. He looked like he was going to carry his team into a Game 7. Logical or not—accurate or not—seeing Snell get kicked out of the game without receiving even the slimmest opportunity to show that he could gut it out and go deeper was a disappointment to anyone who had primed themselves for a memorable, masterful, series-tying performance. Kevin Cash believed he was doing the right thing—and he could have even, technically, been correct!—but he’s the guy who snuffed out that possibility. Seeing his anti-climactic overthinking blow up in his face is not something that any fan, or even Snell himself, will soon forget.