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Updated: March 16th, 2012 9:28pm
Notebook: Blackburn missing bats; Benson makes incredible catch

Notebook: Blackburn missing bats; Benson makes incredible catch

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If Nick Punto was the fans' favorite punching bag for the Minnesota Twins' "little things" philosophy, Nick Blackburn takes just as many lumps for pitching to contact.

With Blackburn, perception has been reality. When hitters swing at Blackburn's pitches, they make contact 89% of the time -- a rate that ties him with Kyle Kendrick, among qualified pitchers, as the most hittable hurler in baseball since 2007.

On Friday, Blackburn quietly continued his solid spring with four scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles. Blackburn allowed just one hit, and only one O's batter made what would be considered solid contact.

It's entirely too early to draw any conclusions based on three short and relatively meaningless spring outings. But the slight changes Blackburn has implemented post-forearm surgery -- namely moving to the middle of the pitching rubber -- have worked well early on.

In three scoreless spring outings (nine innings total), Blackburn has allowed only four line drives while inducing 13 whiffs in 51 swings (a 75% contact rate).

"I honestly don't remember having the movement that I have right now," Blackburn said after Friday's start. "I feel like everything's pretty sharp, pretty late. I could be completely wrong. But like I said, I feel like right now I have the best movement I've had in possibly the whole time. I've been getting enough bad swings that it kind of indicates I could be right about that."

For a low-strikeout sinkerballer like Blackburn to be effective, he should probably be inducing at least 50% grounders on batted balls. On Friday he induced four grounders out of 10 batted balls, and his worm-killing rate this spring is 46%. But he's pleased with getting hitters to hit lazy fly balls.

"It's not like they were squaring them up," Blackburn said. "I think, if anything, it indicates they're almost kind of last-second swings. It's defensive swings almost. If they're squaring them up I'd be a little more concerned about it. ... And a lot of those were on inside fastballs too. ...

"I think usually what makes a sinker effective is the fact that it's heavy -- it kind of feels like it's harder than it really is. And that's really all I'm concerned about, is the fact that it's a heavy ball, it's not easy to square up. Velocity won't be a big thing for me ever."

Lost in the Blackburn bashing over the past two years is the fact that he posted a 4.04 ERA (4.45 xFIP) over 400 innings between 2008 and 2009 -- good for 2.5 and 3 Wins Above Replacement, for the statistically-inclined. He also owned a 3.15 ERA (4.12 xFIP) through 15 starts last year until forearm discomfort came into play shortly after.

When healthy, Blackburn is an effective, innings-eating, No. 4 starter.

Not an ace. Not someone who will shut down the most potent lineups in the American League for eight innings.

But a solid starter, which is something the Twins sorely lacked in 2011.

Benson makes incredible catch

Joe Benson knows strikeouts are his biggest hurdle, but many believe he could play defense in the major leagues right now.

He showed why on Friday night at jetBlue Park.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, with the Twins leading 2-1 and the Red Sox threatening with a runner on second, David Ortiz crushed a Jason Bulger pitch deep toward the triangle in center field.

Running at full speed, Joe Benson raced back to the warning track and made an over-the-shoulder catch in front of the 420-foot sign to rob Ortiz of an extra-base hit.

"I actually thought I was going to run into the side wall at first. But the ball drifted a little to my left," Benson said.

"I'm not going to lie, I kind of stabbed at that one. I put my head down to make sure I could get back there, and when I looked back up I just kind of reached my glove out and it fell in."

He added, "I just decided I was going to go after that ball aggressively. If I smoke the wall, I smoke the wall -- get up and throw the ball back in. But with the momentum of the game and our pitchers pitching like they were, I felt like I had to give them that effort."

The degree of difficulty on the catch itself was high, but the play was exceptionally impressive because of how much ground Benson had to cover.

Asked if it was the best catch he's ever made, Benson said, "I'd say it's up there."

After the catch, a crowd of 8,000-plus -- mostly Red Sox fans -- gave Benson a loud ovation.

"I don't think most people realize either, there's a lot of shadows back there that make it a lot more difficult too," Bulger said. "It's a heck of a catch. ... I didn't realize how quick he was."

At the plate, Benson went 2-for-4 with an RBI. One of those hits was a chopper to short that Benson beat out for an infield single.

Today's results

Orioles 3, Twins 1
Twins 2, Red Sox 1

• Twins' spring record: 8-8

• In his first start of the spring -- his fourth total appearance -- Liam Hendriks held the Red Sox scoreless and hitless over three innings. He walked one and struck out four. "I got lucky on a couple pitches I hung and managed to bury them the next time," Hendriks said, adding, "my fastball was working really well. I managed to keep it on both sides of the plate, and I managed to keep some guys off, mixing in some off-speed early."

• Playing first base for the second time this spring, Joe Mauer made a nifty scoop of a one-hop throw early on and went 1-for-2 at the plate with a walk, an infield single and a hit-by-pitch.

Justin Morneau squared up a line drive to right field in the seventh inning against the Red Sox, but he finished the game 0-for-4 with a strikeout. Asked how Morneau will know when his timing is down, acting manager Scott Ullger said, "Usually when they're squaring the ball up they're getting their timing down. But you've got to be aggressive, and the only way you're going to learn is if you're aggressive. If you're passive you're not going to learn, you're not going to get your timing. So you've got to swing, and that's basically what he did. He wanted another at-bat. I had (Brian) Dinkelman ready, but he said he wanted another at-bat, which was good. He hit the ball hard."

Chris Parmelee went 2-for-3 with two singles, raising his spring batting average to .368.

• The second pitch thrown by right-hander Carlos Gutierrez against the Orioles went over the fence -- a bomb off the scoreboard by Robert Andino. This was the first earned run allowed by Gutierrez in five innings since getting hit hard in a 'B' game prior to the Grapefruit League opener.

• RHP Jared Burton allowed two runs (one earned) on two hits and two walks in an inning against the Orioles. He had previously posted four scoreless innings heading into Friday but remains firmly in the mix for a bullpen slot.

Health report

• RHP Scott Baker (elbow tendonitis) had his bullpen session pushed back to Saturday and instead played long toss on Friday. Everyone in the organization -- from Baker on up to general manager Terry Ryan -- is downplaying the severity of the tendonitis. But at this rate, it's unlikely Baker will be ready when the regular season begins in April.

• ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell and I discuss the statuses of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span.

Numbers game

4.37: Benson's 40-yard dash time as a junior in high school.

75%: Blackburn's contact rate through three spring starts. This is clearly a small sample size and way too early to judge, but Blackburn was hoping a shift to the middle of the rubber would create more deception. The shift has worked well early in camp, but again, it's mid-March. By comparison, Blackburn's career contact rate is 89%.

4: Groundballs induced by Kyle Waldrop, out of four Red Sox batters faced. One broke through the infield for a single.

Overheard

"He looks more like Matt Guerrier than Matt Guerrier does."
-- An anonymous Twins player, talking about Matt Guerrier look-a-like Jared Burton.

On deck

Saturday: @ Marlins, 12:05 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano vs. RHP Ricky Nolasco
Sunday: vs. Pirates, 12:05 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano vs. RHP Charlie Morton
Monday: @ Red Sox, 12:35 p.m. RHP Jason Marquis vs. TBA

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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