A's get boost in WC chase with series win

Blackburn delivers 5-plus strong frames, bullpen helps keep Royals at bay

September 17th, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- A month ago, wasn’t even on the A’s big league roster. Now, he’s being relied upon in crucial moments in the American League Wild Card chase as the team’s fifth starter.

It’s been a bumpy road for the right-hander, as his first five outings came with highs, lows, and everything in between as he fought to keep his spot until Chris Bassitt returns from an injury. That was the case again on Thursday, but after regaining his composure early and some timely help from the bullpen, he walked away with an outing that showed he belongs.

Blackburn tossed five-plus solid innings in the Athletics’ 7-2 win over the Royals in the matinee rubber match at Kauffman Stadium, and the bullpen dealt four scoreless frames behind him to help deliver the series win. Blackburn yielded two runs on six hits and two walks while striking out three.

The win moved Oakland (79-67) three games behind the two AL Wild Card spots, both of which are held by the Blue Jays (82-64) and Red Sox (83-65). Thursday's loss at Baltimore dropped the Yankees (82-65) a half-game behind Toronto and Boston, which were both idle for the day.

The victory also marked Blackburn’s first in the Majors since June 29, 2018. He’s certainly happy to be back in the win column, but more so is pleased to help his team given the important stakes of where they’re at in the regular season.

"I've always kind of thought that I'd be back here to help these guys no matter what time it is,” Blackburn said. “Yeah, it is my first win [since 2018], but this late in the season, where we are right now, it's just a huge win for us in general. I'm just trying to help this team win in any way possible.”

The initial trouble Blackburn faced came courtesy of Salvador Perez -- a tough out for any pitcher right now -- who hit a two-run homer in the first to tie Hall of Famer Johnny Bench (45 in 1970) for the most home runs hit by a primary catcher in a season. Blackburn yielded a pair of singles to Adalberto Mondesi and Ryan O’Hearn later in the inning, but the righty got Hunter Dozier to line out to escape unscathed.

"Salvador, it seems like he's hitting a home run a day against everybody,” manager Bob Melvin said. “And a lot of the times the starter, before they get in their rhythm, sometimes they'll miss on a pitch or two, and you can't miss to Sal right now.”

It was smooth sailing for Blackburn for the following four frames, as he retired 11 of the next 13 batters he faced. In doing so, he provided important length after a wild previous two games in which the bullpen was taxed.

“Every inning that we can get out of the starter past four or five right now is a bonus. ... He's done good work for us,” Melvin said. “Had a couple of rough starts, but pitched well enough to keep us in a game and win a game."

But to start the sixth, he quickly got into a jam by allowing a single to Perez and a walk to Andrew Benintendi before recording an out.

The A’s went to their bullpen. Deolis Guerra quickly struck out Mondesi, then retired O’Hearn on a popup to foul territory before inducing a grounder from Dozier to escape the inning.

“This is the best he's ever pitched at the big leagues,” Melvin said of Guerra, “and we're relying on him in roles that he probably has never had before. So not only to get us out of that jam, but to go back out there and give us another inning as well, probably his best performance for us this year."

The A’s offense provided all the support the pitching staff needed in the third. The first four batters reached base, including a Josh Harrison RBI knock. Tony Kemp scored on an error and Chad Pinder capped it with a two-run knock to left. The A’s tacked on three insurance runs in the ninth thanks to a few wild pitches and a Harrison RBI double that capped his four-hit day.

Andrew Chafin followed Guerra with a similar tightrope-walk routine in the eighth, striking out Dozier and Edward Olivares with two on and one out to stop that threat.

"If you look at our numbers, what, the first two-thirds of the season out of the bullpen, we're about as good as any bullpen in baseball,” Melvin said. “We don't have the hardest throwers, we have guys that pitch to contact and do it a little bit differently, but we've just gone through a tough stretch.

“But based on what they accomplished in the first two-thirds of the season, we still have a lot of confidence. Hopefully this is a springboard for us."