'Lot of positives' for Blackburn despite loss

May 31st, 2022

OAKLAND -- Working into the seventh inning of a game while allowing four runs can generally be viewed as a solid outing for a pitcher. A testament to Paul Blackburn’s wildly successful first two months, such an outing equates to his "roughest" outing so far this season. 

There wasn’t much separation in the quality of stuff shown by Blackburn in Monday’s 5-1 loss to the Astros at the Coliseum from his first nine starts of 2022 which earned him a 1.70 ERA that ranked fourth-lowest among American League pitchers entering the game. Limiting Houston to four runs on just five hits and no walks across 6 2/3 innings -- marking the first time he’s allowed more than three runs in a start this year -- his downfall was really the result of two bad pitches that resulted in home runs.

“I felt like I executed 98 percent of the pitches,” Blackburn said. “[Catcher Sean Murphy] and I stuck to our game plan the whole time through. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”

A large part of Blackburn’s effectiveness this season has been his ability to keep the ball in the yard, which is what made the two homers on Monday a bit peculiar. Coming into the game, he’d allowed just one home run over the 47 2/3 innings pitched through his first nine starts.

The only pitch Blackburn considered a mistake was a poorly located 3-1 changeup that Yordan Alvarez demolished for a no-doubt solo shot in the fourth. Regarding the two-run blast he allowed to Jose Altuve one inning later, both Blackburn and A’s manager Mark Kotsay said they were surprised to see that ball get out, expecting a flyout to right-center field. 

“I think, overall, Paul pitched better than the line [shows],” Kotsay said. “That ball Altuve hit off the bat, I thought would be an out. It was hit at 103 [mph] off the bat, but the height of the hit led me to believe it was going to get caught. It just kept carrying. But I thought he did a good job. Pitched again into the seventh. At that point, we were still in the game.”

Short memory is another strong trait Blackburn has displayed, which continued on Monday. Following Altuve’s homer, the right-hander did not allow another hit until his final batter faced -- a two-out infield single by Altuve in the seventh. 

With his ERA going up to 2.15, still good for sixth-lowest among AL starters, Blackburn still showed off what has helped him emerge as one of the league’s best. He was efficient, throwing 62 of his 91 pitches for strikes. He generated plenty of weak contact, with the Astros averaging an exit velocity of 81.9 mph on the 21 balls put in play against him. Even though he’s a ground-ball pitcher, he even showed he can get a big strikeout when necessary, buckling down in the third following Jose Siri’s leadoff triple by retiring three batters in a row, including swinging punchouts of Altuve and Martín Maldonado.

“You get a guy on third with less than two outs, and you’re going for a strikeout,” Blackburn said. “That’s what I tried to do, and it happened. It gives you confidence in that situation. I don’t punch a lot of people out, but I feel like when I need a strikeout, I’m able to get it most of the time.”

Add in 11 swings-and-misses, including four whiffs on a curveball that ranks as one of the more unhittable pitches in baseball this year, and Blackburn had plenty to feel good about going forward despite the loss. 

“Honestly, it’s probably the best I’ve felt all year,” Blackburn said. “I feel like there’s a lot of positives to take out of this outing. Just being able to create that early soft contact, especially when their guy is doing the same thing. I feel like that’s the pitcher I am. That’s what I’m trying to do every time out there.”

It would have been difficult for Blackburn, or really any other pitcher in baseball for that matter, to match what the other “guy” did against the A’s. Houston starter Framber Valdez stymied Oakland’s offense to finish a complete game, with the A’s going hitless in all but one inning, when a double by Kevin Smith and a single by Ramón Laureano led to their only run scored. 

“On the other side, Valdez is a bulldog,” Kotsay said. “That’s a bulldog right there. Really impressive day on his end. The breaking ball is a weapon, and he’s throwing 95 mph in the ninth inning. Tough day for us, offensively. But you have to tip your cap to the opposing starter.”