A's 'walk' off with win after Blackburn deals

March 31st, 2024

OAKLAND -- A taxed bullpen before April is not ideal, yet that’s the predicament the A’s faced after their relievers had to cover 15 innings through the first three games of the season.

Above all else, the A’s entered Sunday’s series finale against the Guardians desperate for a deep outing from . The right-hander provided exactly that and then some by dominating across seven scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and a walk with three strikeouts.

Though Blackburn took a no-decision after the bullpen combined to blow a three-run lead in the eighth, the A’s responded with a ninth-inning rally that ended on a bases-loaded walk drawn by a pinch-hitting Abraham Toro for a 4-3 walk-off victory at the Coliseum to secure their first win of 2024.

“Nobody wants to start [the season] 0-4,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “I was proud of the effort and fight we showed after that eighth inning. That’s a good sign for this club of not just folding or not having the energy to bounce back from what was pretty ugly and turning it into a positive day.”

Blackburn took a perfect game bid into the fifth that ended on a leadoff single by Josh Naylor. Working out of a bases-loaded jam that inning, he ended his outing by retiring seven of his final eight batters faced and departed with just 88 pitches, 55 of which were strikes.

This is the version of Blackburn that earned him an All-Star selection in 2022. Cleveland manager Stephen Vogt would know. He was Blackburn’s teammate in Oakland that season.

“He kept us off balance,” Vogt said. “He was getting ahead. He was landing all of his pitches. He was living on the outer lane more than we thought he typically did. He went away from kind of his tendency to crowd with the cutter and the slider. He was landing that backdoor breaking ball to our lefties and getting ahead with that. Credit to him. He pitched a heck of a game and we couldn't get anything going."

Nothing is dazzling about Blackburn’s stuff. He doesn’t overpower anybody with his low-90s fastball. Instead, his rise to becoming a quality Major League starter has come in his strong grasp of the six pitches in his repertoire.

Blackburn certainly demonstrated a good feel for all six offerings on Sunday. According to Statcast, the four-seam fastball was his most-thrown pitch at only 22 times. He also threw 17 cutters, 17 changeups, 17 sliders, 10 curveballs and five sinkers.

“When I’m good, that’s kind of how it is,” Blackburn said. “Being able to throw five or six pitches at any given time in any count, right-handed or left-handed, gives the hitters a tough time to look for something.”

Minimizing hard contact has also become a calling card for Blackburn, whose 33.2 percent hard-hit rate last season ranked in the 86th percentile among qualified Major League pitchers. Of the 21 balls Cleveland hit in play against him, the average exit velocity was 85.3 mph.

Blackburn’s motivation to prove his All-Star ‘22 campaign was no fluke was hindered last season due to injuries that prevented him from making his first start until May 29.

This year, Blackburn is fully healthy, and he’s been generating some momentum since Spring Training. Counting his final two spring outings, Blackburn has not allowed a run in his last 18 2/3 innings pitched, looking every bit like that pitcher the A’s saw two years ago.

“Coming into the year, we were just excited to get him going,” said A’s catcher Shea Langeliers. “He kept building off that. Just building confidence in all of his pitches and being able to use both sides of the plate.”

For a rebuilding A’s club that hopes to take a big step forward in ‘24, it will require a lot more quality outings from their starting rotation. Blackburn’s quality start on Sunday marked Oakland’s first of the year, and it came at a pivotal time early in the season.

“Paul was as advertised,” Kotsay said. “He executed everything. Against a contact-type team, the changeup becomes a power pitch. We saw that today, and the result was a lot of ground balls to the pull side and soft contact. He did a tremendous job for us today. We needed that start.”