ST. PETERSBURG — Paul Blackburn entered spring training more as an afterthought than a true contender for Oakland’s roster on Opening Day. Still, as the A’s near the end of their first full turn in the starting rotation, the right-hander’s 2022 debut stands out as the most dazzling.
In a game where the A’s busted at the plate with nine runs and three homers in the first four innings of a 13-2 win over the Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field, it was Blackburn who really turned heads with five dominant innings of scoreless ball. More telling is what he showed, recording a career-high seven strikeouts while allowing just three hits and a walk.
“Paul did a great job keeping these guys off balance,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “I used his change very effectively. It’s a great weapon for Paul. He commanded the baseball and kept a good, solid left-handed roster off balance.
Recognized as a ground ball thrower throughout his career, Blackburn had never scored more than five strikeouts in a single start. Against Tampa Bay, however, he transformed into a batting artist who missed a lot of bats. Of his seven punches, six were of the swing variety. He also tied a career-high 12 puffs among his 71 throws (44 strikes).
Blackburn’s curveball led the way on this smell chart with five swings and misses, including four that were used as starting ground on strikeouts. The curve was one of the off-speed pitches he experimented with this offseason, trying new grips in search of giving him better action through the area.
“It was grip and more just belief throughout,” Blackburn said. “Just step on it 100% when I throw it. I was happy with how it was tonight.
Taming a strong Rays order is no easy task, especially one stacked with left-handed bats. Tampa Bay’s starting lineup against Blackburn featured eight left-handed hitters or hitters.
Although the curveball did most of the damage, Blackburn’s key to neutralizing Tampa Bay’s offense was proper execution of the mix of his four pitches – fastball, curveball, switch and cutter.
“I think fastballs definitely played a big part in that,” Blackburn said. “When you’re able to change eye level like that and do it consistently, I feel like it’s just going to open up everything else.”
The sudden development of swing-and-miss is certainly an advantage for Blackburn. However, a performance like this won’t change what he knows to be true about himself. At his best, he said he still considered himself a ground ball thrower. The ability to now get a strikeout when he needs it is more of an enhancement to improve his overall repertoire.
“On days like today, when everything works out for you, I feel like it’s a lot easier to set up guys when you’ve got feelings for pretty much everything,” Blackburn said. “I always like ground balls. Most of the time he hits someone and it’s a weak touch to get out. Keeping the ball on the ground is always a plus.
Of course, it also helps Blackburn when the offense provides such an early burst of running support as they did early on. The A’s provided him with a four-run lead before he even took the mound on back-to-back first-inning home runs from Seth Brown and Chad Pinder, who both went deep twice in Oakland’s first four games.
After Elvis Andrus delivered his first homer of 2022 with a three-run shot in second, Sheldon Neuse capped off the offensive fireworks with his third hit of the night in ninth. Facing Rays outfielder Brett Phillips, who entered the game as pitcher for the final two innings, Neuse lit a 43.9 mph floater and propelled him into the left field seats for what was the first grand slam of his career.
Despite losing several star players in trades during spring training, the A’s remain confident their offense could still battle with any baseball team, even if the roster is devoid of the usual household names. Performances like Monday’s could certainly help them exceed the low expectations with which they have been labeled by third-party observers.
“Our offense swung him just about every game,” Blackburn said. “We have a lot of guys here who are hungry. We are a good ball club.