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Updated: March 5th, 2011 3:34pm
Gardenhire says Nick Blackburn is in rotation: 'He's one of my guys'

Gardenhire says Nick Blackburn is in rotation: 'He's one of my guys'

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn does not need to fret much about starting the season in the bullpen.

After a scoreless three-inning outing against the Rays on Saturday, manager Ron Gardenhire was asked where Blackburn stood in the competition for that final rotation spot.

Blackburn was thought to be competing with Kevin Slowey, and perhaps Scott Baker, for a spot in the starting rotation.

"Oh, I say Blackburn's in the rotation," Gardenhire said. "I like that sinker ball. I like the way he goes about it. He's pretty good. If he's healthy, he's going at it pretty good. I like what we're seeing. I don't count him as one of the guys left out. He's one of my guys."

"There's a couple spots open there still," Gardenhire added. "There's two people going for it."

He paused, then said, with a slight grin, "maybe three," referring to 23-year-old right-hander Kyle Gibson, who will likely be called up to the major leagues at some point this season.

That means Slowey and Baker are competing for the final rotation spot, assuming the Twins keep Gibson in the minors to begin the season -- and indications are Gibson will indeed start the season in the minors, regardless of how he fares this spring.

Gardenhire already said earlier in the week that Brian Duensing is in the rotation as well, and Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano certainly aren't going anywhere.

After those three scoreless innings on Saturday, Blackburn -- who posted a 5.42 ERA and 5.07 FIP last season while battling injury issues -- has now pitched five scoreless innings this spring, allowing zero runs, two hits and zero walks. He has two strikeouts and nine groundball outs.

Of course, spring stats are largely irrelevant, especially during the first week of action, but Blackburn says he feels healthier now than he has "in the last several springs, with knees and everything included." He added, "My elbow feels great."

Blackburn also said, "It's usually whenever the health is interfering with my mechanics. I don't know if this is necessarily true, but I feel like when my mechanics are off, I'm in way more trouble than a lot of guys. I depend so much on movement, and I lose every bit of my movement whenever my mechanics get out of line."

The challenge for Blackburn, as always, is maintaining those mechanics and a good feel for his sinker. At his best, Blackburn posted a 4.04 ERA and 45% groundball rate in 399 innings between 2008 and 2009.

Maybe peace of mind and better health will help his cause in 2011.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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