Twins still waiting for the 'good' Nick Blackburn to show up
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MINNEAPOLIS -- One year ago Monday, Minnesota Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn held the Toronto Blue Jays to two earned runs on five hits and two walks while striking out eight in 7 2/3 innings.
The Twins' bullpen wound up imploding in a six-run 11th inning, but Blackburn's performance dropped his ERA to 3.70 at the time. That start marked the third in a line of five fantastic outings for Blackburn last May -- traditionally the best month of his career.
Blackburn, who is scheduled to take the mound Wednesday night in Detroit, has yet to find it this season. So far he has allowed fewer than five earned runs only twice in his six starts. And in those six starts Blackburn has yet to pitch beyond six innings.
The seven home runs allowed by Blackburn rank as ninth most among 114 qualified starters.
The Twins are hoping -- perhaps desperately -- to see an emergence of the Blackburn from the first half of last season -- the guy who owned a 3.15 ERA (4.13 xFIP) through his first 15 starts.
Now, we're not talking top-of-the-rotation "good" here. More like solid-to-fairly-reliable-good.
Blackburn was particularly reliable from May 4 to June 22, when he posted a 2.35 ERA in 10 outings while averaging seven innings per start. His low ERA over that span was aided by a .262 batting average on balls in play, but it was a solid stretch nonetheless.
After undergoing forearm surgery last fall Blackburn has spent the last seven months trying to get back to his early-2011 form.
"It's been a process this entire season," Blackburn said after his start on Friday in which he allowed five earned runs on three homers in five-plus innings. "I think we finally have got it pretty close to where we want it. Everything was going great for the first couple of innings (on Friday). ...
"I battled a little bit of extension issues after having the shoulder tightness (in April), and I think tonight we got back to where I was getting all the way out there. I think all the ground balls and swing-over pitches and all that stuff kind of showed that I had the sharp, late movement that we've been looking for this entire time. So I'm definitely excited. I'm ready to get back out there and continue to work on what we have been working on. ...
"Obviously it didn't end the way I wanted it to personally."
The result of Blackburn's performance on Friday night was not good (aside from the fact that he was credited with his first win since last July). The right-hander's ERA now sits at 7.18 on the season.
The "swing-over" pitches he's talking about are the five come-backers he induced in the first three innings Friday. At one point 10 of the 15 batted balls against Blackburn were grounders until Jose Bautista and Eric Thames went yard. Amid all of the negative numbers, Blackburn's groundball rate sits at a solid 50% on the season, which is well above league average.
"(Five comebackers) is pretty good proof that it's got late movement," Blackburn said. "It was surprising me at one point. ... They're beating it into the ground pretty good when you get five of them."
Comparing his stuff on Friday night to his average stuff in May and June of last year -- the months where we saw the "good" Blackburn on a regular basis -- his two-seam fastball velocity is up 2 mph with better downward movement, per MLB Pitch F/X data, and his curveball has more downward depth as well.
Blackburn's changeup had more downward movement in May and June of last year, but the velocity (83 mph) is the same. The 8-mph difference between fastball and changeup this year is obviously more beneficial than a 6-7 mph difference.
Of course, none of this matters unless Blackburn can start producing positive results.