'Out of whack' Blackburn still searching for it

RHP allows 10 ER vs. Rangers, caught in growing pains of first full season

July 25th, 2022

OAKLAND --  sought a fix to his struggles while pitching at home this season. In typical baseball superstition, he decided it was time to change the music that accompanies him to the mound, enlisting the help of fellow starting rotation mate/team DJ James Kaprielian to pick a new walkout song.

Blackburn warmed up to a different tune with “They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth playing over the Coliseum speakers, but the home troubles soon continued. A three-run first inning for the Rangers set the tone for what was another difficult outing for Blackburn, who lasted 4 1/3 innings and was tagged for a season-high 10 runs in an 11-8 A’s loss to Texas on Sunday afternoon.

The home vs. road splits are quite jarring for Blackburn. In eight starts at the Coliseum, the right-hander’s 8.31 home ERA is the worst in the Majors among qualified starters -- and a stark contrast from his 1.88 ERA over 11 road starts. The more concerning issue, however, is his dip in performance over the past month.

Though Blackburn shined in the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium earlier in the week, firing a scoreless inning of relief on 22 pitches, the Midsummer Classic was an outlier to what has been a downward trend. Over his last 10 starts, Blackburn has posted a 6.71 ERA over 53 2/3 innings with 10 homers surrendered, a far cry from the 1.70 ERA in 47 2/3 innings with just one home run allowed through his first nine starts, a run that strongly positioned him for his first career All-Star selection.

Blackburn’s rough patch after that early success is a reminder that he is among the many inexperienced players on this A’s roster trying to establish themselves. Now at 19 starts and 101 1/3 innings pitched on the year, Blackburn continues to build up what is by far his largest workload ever pitched over a season in the Major Leagues.

“Guys go through these stretches during the course of the year where they lose mechanics or just have tough games,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “In Paul’s case, again, this is his first time in a rotation for a full season, and we’re seeing some of the ups and downs of being a young starting pitcher [who's] still trying to go out and understand how to do it every fifth day and have success.”

It was clear to Kotsay that Blackburn was battling himself on Sunday. Uncharacteristically hitting two batters through the first two innings, something he’d only done three times all season coming in, Blackburn dealt with traffic on the basepaths in every inning and was pulled with one out in the fifth after Ezequiel Duran’s one-out single increased the Rangers’ lead to 8-0 at the time.

“I think he was pulling the breaking ball,” Kotsay said. “The changeup was kind of cutting across everything. He gave us everything he had with what he had today. I know Paul is a competitor and wanted to do more. He just didn’t have his stuff today.”

For Blackburn, Sunday’s scuffles were the result of never finding a rhythm. Through the first two innings, he and catcher Stephen Vogt noted he was falling off the mound a bit too quickly, the pair trying to adjust by slowing things down in the next two frames.

Ultimately, that happy medium between too fast and too slow never came, with Blackburn’s 10 earned runs tied for the most allowed by a starting pitcher in MLB over a start so far this season and inflating his overall ERA to 4.35.

“I feel like I’ve been out of whack the last two or three weeks,” Blackburn said. “I’m doing things to try to get back on that path. It’s frustrating going out there feeling good about the work you put in between starts and the results are what they are. It’s very frustrating.”

Stuff-wise, Blackburn feels good. The changeup still feels crisp and the curveball is still moving well. What’s missing is his usual pinpoint command, evidenced by his two homers allowed Sunday on poorly located fastballs.

“My location was terrible today,” Blackburn said. “I left too many balls in the middle of the plate for them to hit. I was falling behind guys. It just wasn’t a good day all around.”

With the A’s scheduled for a pair of off-days in the next week, having Blackburn skip a turn in the rotation for a breather is an option. However, both Kotsay and Blackburn agreed that the best solution for recapturing that All-Star form is to pitch through the ongoing mechanical issues.

“This is the first time I’ve gotten up to as many starts that I have at this level,” Blackburn said. “It’s different, but I have to figure it out. I need to figure out the course of a big league season and figure out how to get myself back on track when things are going bad.”