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Three burning questions heading into Rays-Twins

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The Rays look to end a 10-game road trip with a series win before heading back to the bay

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

After a much-deserved off day, the Rays open up a three-game series tonight in Minneapolis against the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins. They’ll send Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and an opener to the mound poised for revenge after losing three of four at home to Minnesota in late May/early June.

Before the Rays return home to a 10-game homestead, we are blessed with another battle between these AL heavyweights. Here are three burning questions heading into the series.

Can Blake Snell get back to pitching like #CySnell?

The reigning Cy Young winner starts for the Rays tonight coming off the shortest outing of his career: tagged for six runs in one-third of an inning last Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. The start raised Snell’s ERA all the way from 3.70 to 4.40.

The struggle has been real for Snell lately, failing to find a feel for the strike zone (four walks over 39 pitches at NYY), manifesting in an average start of roughly 3 23 innings pitched over his last four outings.

Unfortunately for Snell, he won’t get much of a reprieve tonight. The Twins rank atop the AL in a majority offensive categories such as wOBA (.351), SLG (.502), and OPS (.840). Per ESPN’s David Schoenfield, they have belted 147 home runs, a season-long pace of 309 home runs. That would destroy the single-season mark of 267, set last season by the New York Yankees.

For Snell, the key to getting back on track tonight is trusting his fastball and getting it back to normal usage. For someone with a devastating arsenal of pitches, it’d be wise for Snell to not overthink pitch usage and get back his bread-and-butter: pounding the zone early with fastballs rather than curveballs (first pitch curveball rate vs. RHB has gone from 14 percent to 37 percent). That’ll help open up the plate and spearhead good starts like the one he’s hoping for tonight at Target Field.

Can the Twins push the reset button?

Feasting on a weak division with ease, the Twins are fresh off their first losing week of 2019. Being from the area, it’s quite comical seeing my friends fans panic after losses. I think it’s part of being a Minnesota sports fan in general, where, if something is headed in the right direction or a team is playing well, it almost seems too good to be true. There are no words to describe the patience I’ve showed them, but now that Cleveland is heating up (7.5 back of MIN), I might actually have to sympathize with them if they rapidly start losing ground.

For now, there is zero reason for panic. Baseball Prospectus gives Rocco Baldelli’s squad a 97.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and 90.5 percent chance of winning the division. They became the first team in the American League to hit 50 wins this season over the weekend, entering this week with a 50-27 record. They have positioned themselves better than anyone could have reasonably expected.

To keep their fans sane, however, they’ll need to keep on their foot on the gas pedal. Cleveland’s next 10 games include five against Kansas City, three against Baltimore, and two against Cincinnati — a tremendous opportunity to continue to gain ground on Minnesota.

Can the Rays keep their spirits high?

It’s no secret the MLB season is a grind, and the Rays are smack-dab in the middle of the toughest part of their schedule. After completing a stretch of 21 games in 20 days, they won’t have another off-day until the All-Star Break (July 8-11). Even with the off-day, it’s probable they are physically and mentally fatigued at this point and the recent news regarding injury updates on several players doesn’t help.

On Tyler Glasnow:

On Diego Castillo and Daniel Robertson:

The Glasnow news is obviously the one that really stings. It means that if everything goes well, then we’re looking at an early-August return. It’s the ultimate cap on a brutal June, one that saw Brent Honeywell officially out for the year, Yandy Diaz go on the IL, the Montreal news, Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees, and now their stud righty suffer another setback.

Given the injury bug, it’s fair to suggest it’s time to begin looking at both internal and external options to elevate this roster — and sooner rather than later. Surviving with only two starting pitchers is extremely difficult, especially when the ace and bulk guys aren’t performing up to expectation.

In the midst of a tough stretch and the recent Glasnow news, Snell returning to form would go a long way. Tune in tonight to see if he can spearhead a Rays win and hand the ball over to Cy Young candidate Charlie Morton tomorrow for a series win.