State of the Twins, week 22: Blackburn's tune-up paying off
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the last two weeks has been the three solid starts compiled by Nick Blackburn, who after suffering through a brutal stretch from early-June through mid-July was sent to Triple-A Rochester just before the start of August.
Blackburn made four starts for Rochester, posting a 2.49 ERA with 13 strikeouts, six walks and two home runs allowed in 21 2/3 innings.
He was recalled to the big leagues on August 23 and has allowed five earned runs over 22 2/3 innings in three starts -- we won't count the 13th inning from last Thursday -- while striking out 15 and walking five. The sinker is sinking, his mind isn't spinning, and most importantly for Blackburn, his mechanics are consistent.
"A couple months ago I was thinking about mechanics the whole time," Blackburn said after the Minnesota Twins' 6-5 win over Texas on Sunday. "I was wondering if I was going to make the next pitch, if I was going to execute or not. Now that we've got my mechanics figured out, and the ball is coming out of my hand well, I think I'm just able to go out there and focus on the hitters and make pitches."
While he was in Rochester, Blackburn worked with Red Wings pitching coach Bobby Cuellar. Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson checked in from time to time, but because Cuellar hadn't worked with Blackburn much previously, the right-hander was left to self-diagnose to a certain extent.
When asked if he would have been able to pinpoint adjustments on the fly previously -- whether it be last year or even earlier this year -- Blackburn said, "There's really no telling."
"I probably would have tried to make an adjustment and it wouldn't have been the right one. That's something that we battled for a lot of the time I was up this year, and the whole time I was always trying to make some adjustment, but we never knew what I needed to fix and what I needed to get back to."
Blackburn doesn't have overpowering stuff, and his best skill lies with his ability to induce groundballs when his sinker is on -- although he isn't among the league's elite in that category either (46% grounders over the past three years, compared to roughly 55% for the league leaders).
Even though Blackburn seems to have found a groove again, as well as consistent mechanics, there may always be some speed bumps on the horizon.
Such is the nature with contact pitchers.
Still, during this seemingly never-ending battle of attrition, it's a huge boost to the Twins for Blackburn to be pitching well heading down the stretch.
Meanwhile, over in Boston, the White Sox were busy completing a three-game sweep of the Red Sox, which means the Twins weren't able to add any padding to their 3.5-game lead in the American League Central.
Here's how things stand through 22 weeks:
• DH Jim Thome: Not even Thome himself knew what to expect heading into this season, but it's likely that everybody in the organization is thrilled with his 20 home runs and .270/.394/.603 batting line in 289 plate appearances. Home runs 19 and 20 came off Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis on Saturday and vaulted Thome ahead of Mark McGwire for ninth on the all-time list with 584. In 62 plate appearances since August 6, Thome has been particularly Ruthian, hitting .340/.452/.860 with seven home runs, three doubles and a triple.
• SS J.J. Hardy: Despite going through a cold stretch at the end of August, Hardy is hitting .306/.347/.435 with 14 extra-base hits since coming off the disabled list on July 3. Sure, the power numbers are a little low, but the July/August/September version of Hardy is much closer to what the Twins expected when they traded for him last fall. Yes, he has made a couple poor throws to first base recently, but overall his defense ranks among the best in the league as well -- Hardy currently owns the best Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games of any shortstop.
• OF Michael Cuddyer: With a two-RBI double in the first inning on Sunday, Cuddyer extended his current hitting streak to 10 games. Despite providing immense value with his ability to cover several defensive positions in times of need, Cuddyer's bat has been much more quiet this season than last. He's hitting .275/.340/.425 with 12 homers, 34 doubles and 71 RBIs, which certainly isn't terrible, but not great for his standards. Cuddyer isn't necessarily scorching hot right now, per se -- he's hitting a respectable .299/.341/.428 with seven doubles, one home run and 16 RBIs since August 17 -- but maybe the 10-game hit streak is a sign of things to come.
• OF Delmon Young: After a 1-for-4 performance on Sunday, Young's batting average dipped below .300 for the first time since July 4. Since his peak on August 5 (.331/.362/.536), Young is hitting just .193/.214/.284 with six extra-base hits and 10 RBIs, dropping his season hitting line to .299/.329/.480. That's about as steep of a drop-off as you'll see from any player this year. Then again, his resurgence earlier in the year was equally as precipitous.
• RHP Matt Guerrier: We keep waiting for Guerrier to revert back to his old, reliable ways, but it just hasn't happened. Guerrier played a role in the Twins' 13-inning, 10-9 loss to Detroit on Thursday night, and he has just one strikeout since August 4. Since June 27, Guerrier has given up 18 earned runs in 26 1/3 innings (6.15 ERA), while allowing 30 hits, nine walks and six home runs. Over that stretch, Guerrier has just 10 punch outs.
• Remember earlier this season when the Twins had an impossible time tallying hits with the bases loaded? Well, heading into Sunday, the Twins were hitting .302/.331/.473 with the bags packed. That .302 batting average ranks seventh in baseball, and the .804 OPS ranks ninth.
Not a bad comeback.
• The Twins received a marvelous pitching performance from Matt Fox on Friday night.
The business side of baseball required that the Twins say goodbye to him just two days later in order to clear room on the 40-man roster, but they also said hello to outfield prospect Ben Revere, who was called up in time for Sunday's game.
Revere "never in a million years" thought he would put on a Twins uniform in 2010.
Rob Delaney, who was called up alongside Fox, allowed a home run to the first batter he faced on Saturday night. He was then optioned back to Rochester after Sunday's game to help the Red Wings finish their season this week.
The Twins are likely to recall two or three more pitchers on Monday or Tuesday. Keep an eye on Glen Perkins, Pat Neshek and Anthony Slama.
HOW THEY STAND
1. Twins (80-57)
2. Chicago (76-60) 3.5 GB
3. Detroit (68-69) 12 GB
4. Kansas City (57-79) 22.5 GB
5. Cleveland (55-82) 25 GB
• RHP Scott Baker left Thursday night's start after two innings with elbow tendinitis. He received a cortisone shot after the game and is expected to miss two starts.
• 1B Justin Morneau (concussion) was moved to the 60-day disabled list on Friday to make room for Matt Fox. At the time, Morneau had already been on the DL for 55 days, so the move was simply a formality. There are no further updates on when or if Morneau will return this season. He has not taken batting practice at Target Field in at least a week, and by all indications he is not close to playing.
• LHP Brian Fuentes (back) hasn't pitched since Saturday, August 28 -- his only appearance since being traded to the Twins -- but he is expected to be ready to throw in the upcoming series against Kansas City.
• RHP Kevin Slowey (triceps) is scheduled to come off the disabled list in time to start Monday's ballgame against the Royals.
• 3B Danny Valencia has missed the last two games with a tight hamstring. The injury is not serious, and Valencia should be back in the lineup soon, possibly Monday.
• 2B Orlando Hudson missed a couple days with ankle soreness, and he doesn't appear to be 100% healthy, but will continue to play anyways.
• LHP Jose Mijares (knee) has begun throwing again, although he had a toenail removed near the end of last week, which set him back a couple days. Mijares remains on track for a possible mid-September return.
• INF Nick Punto (hamstring) was eligible to come off the disabled list Sunday, but he isn't expected to be able to go full-throttle for another week or so.
• OF Jason Kubel missed a few days after getting hit by a pitch on the left wrist, but he returned to the lineup on Sunday.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• Monday: vs. Kansas City, 1:10 p.m. Slowey (11-6, 5.39) vs. RHP Sean O-Sullivan (2-4, 5.50).
• Tuesday: vs. Kansas City, 7:10 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.27) vs. RHP Brian Bannister (7-11, 5.95).
• Wednesday: vs. Kansas City, 7:10 p.m. LHP Brian Duensing (7-2, 2.09) vs. RHP Zack Greinke (8-11, 3.87).
• Thursday: off day
• Friday: @ Cleveland, 6:05 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano (16-10, 3.52) vs. RHP Fausto Carmona (11-14, 4.05).
• Saturday: @ Cleveland, 6:05 p.m. Blackburn (9-9, 5.85) vs. RHP Mitch Talbot (9-11, 4.40).
• Sunday: @ Cleveland, 12:05 p.m. Slowey vs. RHP Jeanmar Gomez (3-2, 3.08).
All games on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.