This pitcher embraces role of mentor

June 24th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Martín Gallegos’ A’s Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox

OAKLAND --  does not take the opportunity of having  as his catch partner for granted.

Before every game, Harris makes it a point to walk from the clubhouse out onto the field for warmups alongside Blackburn. This ensures ample time to take in any pointers that might come his way.

Once the throwing session concludes, Harris spends the rest of pregame observing. He soaks up Blackburn’s descriptive scouting reports on the opposing team’s lineup. He follows the right-hander’s cool-down routine.

“You see how he carries himself,” Harris said. “The work ethic there. The way he goes about things. There’s a lot of little things. All of us younger guys on the staff, being able to see that and learn from it is big for us.”

Blackburn, a 2022 All-Star whose ‘23 debut was delayed until May 29 because of a couple of different finger issues that kept him on the injured list out of Spring Training, has boosted Oakland’s starting rotation. That impact goes beyond just pitching for the A’s every fifth day.

“Paul has been up and down in this organization for six to seven years, yet he’s amassed three years of big league service time,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “That’s enough experience for him to share with these guys. You see him in the dugout talking to them in the game as well as throughout the week when they’re preparing for their start. It’s nice to have Paul back from both aspects. The competitor when he takes the mound, and the mentor in the development process as well.”

Blackburn, 29, is not your prototypical vet. He entered what is his seventh Major League season with only 249 1/3 innings under his belt. But for a young A’s rotation that currently features a pair of rookies in Harris and , as well as , who is navigating through his first full season in the big leagues, Blackburn qualifies as the staff’s elder statesman.

With such a title comes somewhat of an obligation to serve as a leader. Blackburn understands and embraces it.

“There’s a lot of talent [on this team] and a lot of guys that want to learn,” Blackburn said. “A lot of guys ask a lot of questions. Just being able to be there for them, that’s what I want to be for a lot of guys in here. Someone they can lean on for questions when things aren’t going so good or things are going really good.”

Blackburn knows the challenge of trying to establish yourself at the highest level. After a solid rookie campaign in 2017, injuries and struggles led to Blackburn posting a 9.22 ERA with Oakland from ‘18-20. After getting designated for assignment in February ‘21, Blackburn stuck around in the A’s organization and built himself up into an All-Star last season.

Blackburn looked up to successful A’s pitchers such as Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea throughout that journey. He sought to learn as much as he could from each.

“I’ve been through a lot,” Blackburn said. “I’ve had my ups and downs. I just like being able to share stuff with guys and let them know it’s going to be OK. As long as you continue to learn and grow as a player, that’s all that really matters.”

The fact that the A’s entire pitching staff has seemingly turned things around with Blackburn back in the fold might not be a coincidence. Since his return on May 29, A’s pitchers have combined to post a 3.91 ERA. Before May 29, that ERA was an MLB-worst 6.87.

“When we didn’t have Paul early in the year, we were talking a lot about how we needed him,” Sears said. “There’s something about having a guy around you that, you can just tell he doesn’t think about much. He has his process and his routine. ... Being a young guy watching him every day, you strive to be like that.

“He’s been around enough to be able to give you little trinkets of things to learn throughout the game. There are certain lineups that you can be aggressive on and certain ones you need to be a little bit more fine with. Those are the little things you get a little better at the more you talk with and watch somebody like him.”