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Updated: August 11th, 2012 10:11pm
Rough first inning creates more doubts about Nick Blackburn

Rough first inning creates more doubts about Nick Blackburn

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - Nick Blackburn sat in the dugout on Friday night at Target Field and watched the Tampa Bay Rays score eight runs and pound out seven hits in 1 1/3 innings against Twins starter Cole De Vries.

This provided Blackburn a blueprint for how to proceed with caution early against the Rays on Saturday night in game two of the series.

The announced time of Blackburn's first pitch Saturday was 6:11 p.m. As that was being announced in the press box, Rays left fielder Desmond Jennings drilled a Blackburn pitch up the middle for a single.

B.J. Upton followed with a two-run homer to left - his first of two on the night off Blackburn - and Matt Joyce then drilled a solo shot to right. The Rays had a 3-0 lead before the Twins came to the plate.

It could have been worse. After Evan Longoria struck out, Ben Zobrist singled to right and stole second and Carlos Pena walked. But Blackburn, a sinkerball pitcher, got Jeff Keppinger to hit a sharp shot to third that Jamey Carroll made a nice play on and started a 5-4-3 double play.

Blackburn was not terrible the rest of the way. He gave up four runs and 11 hits in six innings in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay.

"Blackie couldn't make any pitches in the first inning," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He settled in nice and got us deep in the game."

But the fact Blackburn was able to recover wasn't the point. The point was that the veteran righthander had an opportunity to approach the start knowing exactly what the Rays would do and he still couldn't stop it from happening.

"I knew Jennings was going to swing at the first pitch," Blackburn said after falling to 4-8 on the season. "I didn't have a single doubt in my mind. But like I said, I just didn't get the pitch there. To me, to start off the game I'm going to go with my strength, and obviously my strength is typically my sinker.

"I'm thinking right there, if I just execute the pitch and get him to ground out on the first pitch of the game and be an out, that'd be nice. But I didn't get it there. Same thing with Upton. And Joyce, too. ... Those first three guys just kind of ambushed me. I came out and wasn't quite where I wanted to be location-wise, and it pretty much cost us tonight."

What happened in the first inning Saturday was more disturbing then Tampa Bay's eight runs in the first two innings on Friday for a simple reason.

If De Vries is back with the Twins next season, he likely will be in the bullpen. He's not the only member of the current rotation who won't be holding the same job in 2013. Sam Deduno could be gone and Brian Duensing has proven he's better in the bullpen.

Scott Diamond, who will enter Sunday's start with a 10-5 record and 2.91 ERA, is assured of a job in the rotation going into spring training. Odds are good that Blackburn also will remain a starter for the Twins.

The Twins need to sign a couple of free-agent pitchers and rebuild the rotation but they aren't going to bring in five new guys. Diamond will stick because he has been extremely impressive since being recalled in May.

Blackburn likely will stick because he's due $5.5 million in 2013, the fourth year of a $14 million deal that began in 2010 and includes an $8 million club option for 2014.

Despite his early struggles Saturday, Blackburn actually lowered his ERA from 7.42 to 7.33. His season was interrupted by a demotion to Triple-A Rochester last month. Blackburn made two starts for Rochester before being recalled.

Blackburn won 11, 11 and 10 games for the Twins from 2008 to 2010 but his ERA rose from 4.05 to 4.03 to 5.42. He went 7-10 last season but lowered his ERA to 4.49.

Saturday's defeat extended Blackburn's losing streak to four games and the 11 hits he gave up were a season-high. He wasn't won a game since June 22.

This season long ago got away from the 49-64 Twins, but this was the type of game where a guy who appears set to remain in the rotation next season had a chance to make a positive impression.

"Early on I just... the first 10 pitches, you know, I just didn't quite get them there," Blackburn said. "That's sometimes how the game starts off. Guys don't always come out just painting right out of the gate. Unfortunately, they were swinging."

And, unfortunately for Blackburn, that meant that once again he created doubt about whether he should be part of the Twins' plans for their 2013 rotation.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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