Blackburn taking reins as leader of A's rotation

June 16th, 2023

OAKLAND --  had visions of recapturing his first-half success from a year ago that earned him a trip to the All-Star Game. A late start due to injury may not leave enough time for a repeat All-Star selection, but the right-hander is without question re-establishing himself as the A’s anchor.

During Oakland’s recent seven-game winning streak that featured a string of strong performances from a young pitching staff, there were multiple instances in which a starter credited advice he received from Blackburn as part of the reason for the recent success. Taking the mound for his fourth start back from injury, Blackburn showed the value he also provides on the field.

In Thursday afternoon’s 4-3 loss at the Coliseum to split a four-game series with the Rays, who became the first team in MLB to reach 50 wins this season, Blackburn worked around a couple of jams to limit a potent Tampa Bay offense to three runs (two earned) on seven hits and one walk over 5 2/3 innings. Lowering his ERA to 3.48, the 2022 All-Star also racked up a career-high nine strikeouts.

Blackburn’s lone walk came with two outs in the sixth against No. 9 hitter Francisco Mejía, prompting a visit from A’s manager Mark Kotsay. After a longer-than-usual discussion, Blackburn was removed at 104 pitches, marking his highest total of the season.

“I wanted to talk about his outing with him and make sure we were on the same page,” Kotsay said. “He battled. That was a great performance. It was a gutsy performance against a good lineup, and he got over 100 pitches, which he hadn’t done yet this season.”

Aside from Manuel Margot’s solo homer in the fourth, Blackburn generated mostly weak contact throughout, with an average exit velocity of 85.8 mph on 16 balls hit in play against him. There was a bit more swing-and-miss than usual, as Blackburn recorded a career-high 17 whiffs after never having surpassed 13 in one start over his career.

“That’s a very good team over there with a very high contact rate,” Blackburn said of the Rays. “Our game plan coming in was to mix around. I feel like we did a good job keeping them off-balance. Just continuing to attack.”

According to Statcast, the slider was Blackburn’s most-thrown pitch (24 times). It was responsible for seven of his whiffs and finished off four of his strikeouts.

“It’s a pitch that I’ve slowly gained a lot of confidence in throwing in big situations,” Blackburn said. “I threw one today 3-2 to Mejía and had him off-balance. It’s a pitch that I’m starting to get a lot more feel for that I kind of added to my repertoire a little bit last year. This year, I’m definitely using it a lot more, and it’s helped balance out my curveball as well. Moving forward, it’s a pitch I’ll kind of rely on.”

Blackburn’s importance for a rebuilding A’s club goes beyond just taking the ball every fifth day. Entering Thursday, Oakland’s starting pitchers were 4-1 with a 3.20 ERA over the past eight games. Through that stretch, young arms like JP Sears, Hogan Harris and Luis Medina -- all of whom have spent significant time closely leaning on Blackburn for guidance between starts -- have delivered quality outings.

“Paul’s a leader for the pitching staff,” said A’s second baseman Tony Kemp, who reached base three times on Thursday. “To see what he does every fifth day is special. … Even when he’s not pitching, he’s a special guy. With the younger pitchers that are on the staff, they can learn a lot from him. He’s been helping them out in more ways than one.”

A visit from another playoff-contending team in the Phillies on Friday night for the start of a three-game series will continue to provide a measuring stick for this inexperienced A’s team that has shown encouraging signs over the past two weeks.

The stark contrast between this tightly contested series against the Rays and their three-game set in St. Petersburg from April 7-9 is emblematic of the progress that has been made. Back in April, the A’s were swept and outscored, 31-5, over the three games.

"They’re a group of grinders,” Rays second baseman Taylor Walls said of the A’s. “They have good at-bats. They battle it out. Never give up a pitch or out. That’s a different ballclub that we played this series than it was at the beginning of the year.”