MILWAUKEE -- In the context of Paul Blackburn's late-blooming Major League career, his dominant performance on Saturday qualifies as a vintage outing.
When Blackburn carved out a superb first half of the 2022 season, a standout stat from that journey to earning his first career All-Star selection later that summer was the 1.28 ERA he posted on the road, which ranked lowest among Major League pitchers. His start in Saturday’s 2-1 win in 10 innings over the Brewers at American Family Field -- Oakland’s fourth consecutive victory, which sealed a second straight road series win as well -- felt like a flashback to that magical ride.
Blackburn shut down Milwaukee’s offense over six scoreless innings, allowing just four singles and one walk. Just as with the bulk of Blackburn's ‘22 run, there was nothing overly flashy on display. Sure, he struck out five batters.
But as was the case last season in his emergence as Oakland’s ace, his success stemmed from his pinpoint command, throwing 64 of his 95 pitches for strikes and consistently getting ahead in the count early, with first-pitch strikes to 16 of his 22 batters faced.
When the Brewers did make contact, it was often weak, with an average exit velocity of 88.4 mph on 16 balls hit in play against him.
“Today was Paul’s best,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “You just see a crispness to his stuff and confidence out there. We all know he’s a competitor. We saw that last year in the first half, and we really saw it today.”
During his transformation into an established Major League starter, Blackburn gained a strong grasp of his six-pitch mix with an ability to throw any of them in any count. That showed through on Saturday, as he distributed all six about as evenly as any pitcher could.
According to Statcast, Blackburn’s sinker was his most-thrown pitch at only 29 times. He also threw 17 cutters, 14 curveballs, 13 sliders, 11 changeups, and 11 four-seam fastballs. He finished off his strikeouts with three different pitches: the cutter, slider and sinker.
“That’s something we’ve been focusing on more this year,” Blackburn said. “Especially with the mix I have, being able to show guys five or six different pitches, that’s a lot for a hitter to come in and game plan for. On a day like today when [all six pitches] are pretty much all on, it makes it even harder on them.”
An 8.41 ERA in four starts following the 2022 All-Star break before his season was cut short due to a finger issue put a damper on what should have been viewed as a breakout year and coming-out party for Blackburn. This presented some motivation coming into ‘23 to prove last year’s first half was no fluke.
Through his first two outings of this season, Blackburn flashed some of his ‘22 form, but was unable to put together a quality performance. He provided a reminder of what he brings to the table on Saturday, beginning his start with a strikeout of two-time All-Star and former MVP Christian Yelich on a cutter.
“He just knows how to pitch,” Yelich said of Blackburn. “Two starts doesn’t really tell you the story. He’s been an All-Star before. He did a good job of pitching. He didn’t make too many mistakes over the middle today.”
Working with catcher Shea Langeliers for the third straight time, Blackburn produced without question his best outing of the year. In fact, it marked the first time Blackburn threw at least six scoreless innings since July 2, 2022, when he worked 6 1/3 scoreless frames against the Mariners in Seattle.
Called up as Oakland’s No. 1 prospect last August just after Blackburn was sidelined for the remainder of the season, Langeliers did not get an opportunity to catch the right-hander. But based on what he’s seen so far in their first three games together, it is clear to the 25-year-old backstop just what type of pitcher he’s dealing with.
“He’s got great command,” Langeliers said. “The more I get to work with him, the more comfortable we’ll get together. I’ll start thinking like him and he’ll be able to think like me so we get on the same page quicker. … The more we work together, he’s going to be our All-Star again.”