Durham Bulls stomp Charlotte Knights in home opener

It was June, 46 innings into his season, before Blake Snell gave up a run last year.

Despite being touched up for two runs in the 2016 season opener, the left-hander picked up where he left off for the Durham Bulls.

Snell, the Minor League Player of the Year in 2015 after a banner season, pitched five strong innings Thursday night as the Bulls opened their 19th season in the Triple-A International League with a 7-3 victory over the Charlotte Knights.

A crowd of 7,710 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park waited through an early-game drizzle that delayed the start to the 92nd year of professional baseball in Durham by 26 minutes. But they were rewarded with the Bulls’ fifth straight win in season openers – a welcome start to a four-game series with Charlotte.

Snell (1-0) had to contend with light rain and cold, windy conditions. He also didn’t have his best breaking pitch but otherwise was in command.

“We were looking at five innings and 80 pitches (from Snell),” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “We got 75. That was a tough start for him in the rain. He went out there and grinded through very nicely.”

Snell allowed five hits and two runs, both earned, in five innings with five strikeouts and one walk. A year ago he compiled a 15-4 record and 1.41 ERA while pitching on three levels of the parent Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system, including a 6-2 mark in Durham after his call-up on July 20.

“It’s tough because there’s a lot of hype about him,” Sandberg said. “It’s about him going out and pitching and not worrying about other stuff. … Just go pitch.”

Snell did that. “My whole focal point was to attack,” he said. “I wanted to get us out of the rain as fast as I could.”

It helped that the Bulls staked him to a 5-0 lead in the second inning, when they sent 10 batters to the plate and chased Charlotte starter Scott Carroll (0-1). Snell showed some maturity in the dugout when he got up and went to the bullpen to stay loose during the long inning.

“I got up and (pitching coach) Kyle Snyder said I should probably throw a couple,” Snell said.

Snell gave up a run in the third on a leadoff double by Kevan Smith, who came around to score on two successive groundouts. But the tall lefty exercised some damage control to cut short a Charlotte rally in the fifth, when the Knights bunched consecutive one-out singles by Smith, Daniel Fields and Jacob May for their second run. Snell regrouped to strike out Tim Anderson with runners at the corners and got Carlos Sanchez to ground into a force play.

“I knew that after his first at-bats he would swing at the first pitch,” Snell said of Anderson, who missed on an opening changeup. “After I saw the first swing, I felt if I went higher and higher with the fastball, I had him.”

Jaff Decker collected three hits for the Bulls, while Richie Shaffer, Patrick Leonard and Luke Maile had two apiece, with Shaffer getting three RBIs and Maile driving in two.

Leonard and Maile, the eighth and ninth hitters in the lineup, had RBI singles in the big second-inning rally, and Shaffer ended Carroll’s night with a two-run single in the frame. Leonard and Maile stroked back-to-back doubles in the third to produce a run, and Shaffer added an RBI single in the sixth.

Sandberg credited the bottom of his lineup for its production.

“Luke Maile was here last year but struggled with the bat,” Sandberg said of his catcher, who hit .207 in 2015. “He came out and swung the bat real well, drove in a couple runs. Patrick Leonard, making his Triple-A debut, started off with two hits and an RBI.”

The Durham bullpen also performed well. Dylan Floro, coincidentally the opening-day starter a year ago for the Bulls, pitched three innings of relief, allowing three hits and a run. He struck out five without a walk. Andrew Bellatti pitched a hitless ninth for Durham.