Blackburn looks to move past first speed bump of '22

June 23rd, 2022

OAKLAND -- The A’s have grown accustomed to watching Paul Blackburn produce a quality outing each time out this year as he’s emerged as one of the league’s top arms. That’s what made his start on Wednesday so atypical.

An ominous beginning to the game that saw Blackburn give up a leadoff double to J.P. Crawford on an 0-2 count set the tone for what was his first lackluster performance of 2022. The right-hander often pitched with traffic on the bases and seldom got away with it, allowing seven runs on 10 hits, both season highs, in the A’s 9-0 loss to the Mariners at the Coliseum.

“Tough one for Paulie. Not of the norm for him this year by any measure,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “He didn’t have his best stuff. He tried to manage that lineup to get through it, but they’ve got some guys hitting really well. The result was they got him out of there a lot earlier than expected.”

Blackburn’s stellar first three months of the season have positioned him to likely receive his first career All-Star selection. Carrying the fourth-lowest ERA among American League starters entering the night at 2.26, his eight outings of at least five innings pitched with no more than one run allowed through his first 13 starts were second-most in the AL, only one behind Texas ace Martín Pérez.

Wednesday’s outing marked just the third time he’s allowed more than three runs, and he lasted only four-plus innings while his ERA spiked to 2.97.

“Not good,” Blackburn said of his performance. “I feel like I threw some good pitches and they hit them. They hit the bad pitches, too. It was just one of those nights where they were locked in. When I had to make a pitch, I couldn’t make a pitch.”

A dominant curveball has been key to Blackburn's rise. It’s one of the more unhittable pitches in baseball, as opposing hitters entered Wednesday hitting just .060 (3-for-50) against it with 21 strikeouts. Against Seattle, he threw the curve 13 times out of his 92 pitches and recorded only one swing and miss with it.

There was a point in the contest where Blackburn did appear to finally look like himself. It came in the fourth, when he delivered a 1-2-3 inning on 12 pitches, capped by a strikeout of Ty France. Back out for the fifth, though, Blackburn quickly followed up a leadoff single allowed to Julio Rodríguez by surrendering a homer to Jesse Winker. Two batters later, a double by Taylor Trammell spelled the end of Blackburn’s night, as he was pulled without recording an out in the inning for what ended up matching his shortest outing of the year.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst I felt, stuff-wise, this year,” Blackburn said. “It kind of came and went as the game went on. There were at-bats where I lost stuff and some where I had it. I just couldn’t get in a rhythm all night. I just couldn’t stop it tonight.”

Another leading factor Blackburn has attributed to his success comes in his willingness to sit down the following day and review his start, even the lesser dominant ones, to evaluate and find some takeaways for the next one. That process will continue come Thursday, but Blackburn said he doesn’t expect there to be much to dissect from this one.

“As much as we want to be perfect every outing, you have to be a realist,” Blackburn said. “You’re going to go out there sometimes and get beat. Sometimes you’ll have your stuff and get beat. Sometimes you won’t have any of your stuff and beat them. It’s a long year with a lot of ups and downs.

“Today was just one of those days. Overall, I didn’t feel my stuff was terrible, but they hit the good pitches I made and also made me pay on the bad pitches I made.”

Even at his best, it would have been difficult for Blackburn to match the pitching gem turned in on the other side from George Kirby. The rookie right-hander contributed to what was Oakland’s ninth shutout loss of the season, tossing six innings with six strikeouts.

“He’s got a good arm and life to the fastball,” Kotsay said of Kirby. “A good breaking ball mix with the slider and curveball. He’s tough. He’s done a great job this year thus far. We tried to get to him. We did take some good at-bats, but we didn’t get any runs across. We’ll turn the page and get back at it tomorrow.”