ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — During the two seasons they shared as Tampa Bay Rays, young left-hander Blake Snell talked with veteran catcher Jesús Sucre regularly. The topics included baseball, with Sucre offering explanation of pitch sequences and ways to approach opposing batters, but the conversations often dipped into other aspects of life. Sucre wanted to help the developing ace however he could.
In the second of those two seasons together, Snell won the 2018 American League Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. In 10 starts with Sucre behind the plate, Snell had a 1.06 ERA.
With the Orioles visiting the Rays this week, the battery was in opposing clubhouses for the first time since Sucre signed with Baltimore this offseason, but their bond is not diminished.
"Sooky was a guy that I looked up to in a lot of ways,” Snell said. “He really taught me how to pitch. I loved his emotion, loved the way he showed up to play every day. He's one of the best teammates you could ever ask for. I just loved his energy. Always happy. Always messing with everybody. He was just a joy to be around and compete with. He was one of my favorites that I've ever had behind the plate.
“I just purely enjoyed throwing to him. Getting on the same page with him, it happened very quickly. He's always cared so much about me as a pitcher and as a person.”
Other Rays pitchers told similar tales, ones that painted a picture of a knowledgeable, trustworthy catcher on the field who always brought a bubbly, infectious personality into the clubhouse.
Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, who like Sucre is a native of Venezuela, recalled how whenever Sucre and fellow catcher Wilson Ramos would frequent their favorite restaurant, Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chão, they made sure Alvarado came along.
“He’d say, 'Hey, follow me. I'm gonna go eat,' ” Alvarado said. “ 'OK, I'll follow you.' ”
Following Sucre on the mound was that easy, too. With 14 years of professional catching experience, Sucre has earned a reputation as a reliable signal-caller. A young Orioles pitching staff has already sensed benefits from his veteran presence.
“He's a guy that you know when he throws a sign down that it's thought out,” said right-hander David Hess, who threw 6 1/3 no-hit innings in his first start of 2019 with Sucre catching. “He has a plan going into every single hitter, every single game. He's very interactive. He's a guy that you can watch him and tell right off the bat he's very invested in the game and cares a lot about us individually doing well as pitchers. He takes the responsibility of calling a good game and taking care of the pitching staff very seriously, so to have a guy like that who just cares as much as he does, I think that really pushes you to keep going and to perform as best as you can.
Sucre, he's the best for a reason. ... To have a veteran that is there for you every day on and off the field, it's pretty awesome."— Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, on his former batterymate
“I think it really just sets a standard of what we're looking to accomplish."
Ramos’ presence in Tampa often limited Sucre’s playing time. In 62 games in 2017, he hit seven of his 10 career home runs. He played a career-high 73 games last season, only the third time in six major league seasons he appeared in at least 50, and although his bat slumped, his 3.56 catcher’s ERA was the fourth best among American Leaguers who caught at least 2,000 plate appearances.
The chance he’s received with Baltimore to be a primary starter, behind the plate for 13 of the Orioles’ first 19 games, is a first for the 31-year-old.
“I've never had this opportunity before in my career,” Sucre said. “It means a lot to me, to be playing pretty much every day here. I'm happy to be here with this group.
"My whole career, I was playing like one time a week, two times a week, so playing pretty much every day now here, it means a lot. It changed my whole career."
He has fit right in off the field, as well. Teammates have pointed to a laugh that’s inescapable, one that manages to make its way around a clubhouse with ease.
“He keeps everyone laughing,” Orioles left-hander John Means said. “Especially on the bus, he has a contagious laugh, so when you hear the laugh, everyone else starts laughing.
"It seems like every day I hear his laugh from across the room, and then I start laughing with him."
That laugh is only one example of a personality that Snell said brought daily energy into the Rays’ locker room.
“It just oozes out of who he is,” Snell said.
Snell, 26, doesn’t hesitate to provide Sucre with credit for his growth from 2017, when he posted a 4.04 ERA in a bumpy sophomore season, to his Cy Young 2018 with an AL-best 1.89 ERA, the most wins in the majors with 21 and a top-10 Most Valuable Player finish.
Sucre, though, passes on credit. He takes pride in what Snell accomplished, a young arm earning a pitcher’s highest individual honor, because it meant he did what he was responsible for behind the plate.
“That's part of my job, try to take care of the pitchers, try to help them out with what I can,” Sucre said. “To see those results, it makes you feel really good."
There remains plenty of room to grow for a mostly young Orioles staff, one that leads the majors in home runs allowed and bullpen innings pitched. Ask Snell, and there’s no better catcher to help that development take place.
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“Sucre, he's the best for a reason,” Snell said. “Behind the plate, I really think he's the best.
“To have a veteran that is there for you every day on and off the field, it's pretty awesome."
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O’s starter: Dylan Bundy (0-1, 8.76)
Twins starter: Kyle Gibson (0-0, 7.71)