Even in defeat, Blackburn flashes All-Star form
ARLINGTON -- Ask Paul Blackburn what he thinks is the main factor leading to his breakout 2022 campaign and he’ll immediately respond with a change in his mentality on the mound.
Beyond a devastating curveball and strong ability to induce ground balls at a high rate, Blackburn has attributed the success that earned him his first career All-Star selection this year to adjusting his focus to more of a pitch-to-pitch approach. Part of that is an emphasis on not allowing himself to dwell on one bad pitch or a bad inning.
Without that change of perspective, Blackburn might not have been able to bounce back in the grand fashion that he did following a rough first inning in the A's 5-2 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday at Globe Life Field.
After allowing just eight runs across his first 56 1/3 innings pitched on the road this season, Blackburn was ambushed by the Rangers’ offense Wednesday and tagged for five runs in the first, marking the most runs he’s allowed in a single inning this season.
“That first inning was uncharacteristic of Pauly with the walks,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “In talking to Paul after that inning, he just couldn’t get comfortable with the baseball. He got more comfortable out there, and the results showed after that first.”
Statistically speaking, the numbers showed Blackburn entering the night as the best road pitcher in baseball with a 1.28 ERA in 10 starts away from Oakland, a figure that stood as the lowest in the Majors.
“I just couldn’t get a feel for anything,” Blackburn said of his early-game struggles. “Just feel with the ball in my hand. I just couldn’t get a good feel to be in the zone. Going for a series win, you come out and do that in the first, it’s unacceptable.”
Blackburn came into this outing with a particular goal of going deep into the contest to provide rest for a taxed bullpen that had just covered seven innings in a grueling 12-inning victory on Tuesday night, so his 32-pitch opening frame was not ideal. But instead of a disastrous outcome, he settled down and found his groove shortly after.
Following the high-stress first in which he allowed three hits and issued three walks, Blackburn held Texas hitless from the second through the sixth. With one walk his only blemish after the first, the right-hander finished his start by retiring 15 of his last 16 batters faced and will carry a 3.62 ERA into the All-Star break.
"He's good. He's an All-Star for a reason,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said of Blackburn. “We knew that it was going to be a little bit of a handful. I thought we were really stubborn [in the first inning]. We just didn't budge.
“When he's good, he's pitching around the edges and getting you to come off the middle of the plate. Once there was nobody on base for the rest of the game, he was getting us off the barrel and doing what he's been doing all year.”
The deeper Blackburn went into the game, he started to regain that feel for his pitches that eluded him in the first. With the damage already done -- and opposing pitcher Jon Gray tossing a gem by holding the A’s to one hit through seven shutout innings -- Blackburn’s late turnaround was not enough. Skye Bolt and Ramón Laureano did make things interesting with a pair of ninth-inning solo homers, but Oakland ultimately fell, becoming the first team in the Majors to reach 60 losses this season.
Still, Blackburn’s resilient performance Wednesday provided glimpses of why he’ll be joining the game’s elite players in the Midsummer Classic next week. Even when things aren’t going his way, he finds a way to keep his team in the ballgame almost every time out.
“Being able to get knocked down and stand back up, there is a positive to take out of that,” Blackburn said. “Going out and starting the way it did and being able to get through six, the bullpen had a long one yesterday and my goal coming in was to save them.”
With the All-Star Game coming up on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, Blackburn would be on five days’ rest heading into the star-studded contest in Los Angeles.
Should American League All-Star team manager Dusty Baker find an opportunity for Blackburn to throw an inning, the A’s have no problems with letting their All-Star hurler pitch against the National League’s best hitters.
“From my end, I want those guys that are All-Stars to have an opportunity,” Kotsay said. “We’re hopeful that Pauly gets an opportunity and gets to pitch in that game.”