ST. PETERSBURG — Paul Blackburn came into Spring Training as more of an afterthought rather than an actual contender for Oakland’s Opening Day roster. Yet as the A’s approach the end of their first full turn through the starting rotation, the right-hander’s 2022 debut stands out as the most dazzling.
In a game when the A’s broke out at the plate with nine runs and three homers through the first four innings of a 13-2 victory over the Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field, it was Blackburn who really turned heads with five dominant innings of scoreless ball. More eye-opening was the stuff he showed off, recording a career-high seven strikeouts while allowing just three hits and one walk.
“Paul did a great job keeping these guys off balance,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “Used his changeup very effectively. That’s a great weapon for Paul. He commanded the baseball and kept a good, solid left-handed lineup off balance.”
Known as a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career, Blackburn had never registered more than five strikeouts over a single start. Against Tampa Bay, though, he transformed into a strikeout artist who missed plenty of bats. Of his seven punchouts, six were of the swinging variety. He also matched a career-high 12 whiffs among his 71 pitches (44 strikes).
Leading the way on that whiff chart was Blackburn’s curveball with five swing-and-misses, including four that were used as the putaway pitch on strikeouts. The curve was among the offspeed pitches he experimented with this offseason, trying out new grips in search of giving it better action through the zone.
“It was grip and more just conviction all the way through,” Blackburn said. “Just stepping on it 100 percent when I do throw it. I was happy with the way it was tonight.”
Taming a strong Rays order is no easy task, especially one stacked with left-handed bats. Tampa Bay’s starting lineup facing Blackburn featured eight batters who were either left-handed or switch-hitters.
Though the curveball did most of the damage, Blackburn’s key to neutralizing Tampa Bay’s offense was a sound execution of mixing all four of his pitches — fastball, curveball, changeup and cutter.
“I think fastballs up definitely played a big role into that,” Blackburn said. “When you’re able to change eye levels like that and do it consistently, I feel like it’s gonna just open up everything else.”
The sudden swing-and-miss development is certainly a positive for Blackburn. However, a performance like this won’t change what he knows to be true about himself. At his best, he said he still views himself as a ground-ball pitcher. The ability to now get a strikeout when he needs it is more an enhancement to improve his overall repertoire.
“Days like today when you have everything working for you, I feel like it’s a lot easier to set guys up when you have feel for basically everything,” Blackburn said. “I still love ground balls. Most of the time, it’s hit at somebody and it’s weak contact to get outs. Keeping the ball on the ground is always a plus.”
Of course, it also helps Blackburn when the offense provides such an early outburst of run support as it did early on. The A’s supplied him a four-run lead before he even took the mound on back-to-back first-inning homers by Seth Brown and Chad Pinder, both of whom have now gone deep twice through Oakland’s first four games.
After Elvis Andrus delivered his first homer of 2022 with a three-run shot in the second, Sheldon Neuse capped the offensive fireworks with his third hit of the night in the ninth. Facing Rays outfielder Brett Phillips, who entered the game as a pitcher for the final two innings, Neuse turned on a 43.9 mph floater and blasted it into the left-field seats for what was the first grand slam of his career.
Despite losing several star players through trades during Spring Training, the A’s remain confident that their offense could still slug it out with any team in baseball, even if the lineup is devoid of the usual household names. Performances like Monday could certainly help them exceed the low expectations they’ve been labeled with by third-party observers.
“Our offense has been swinging it pretty much every game,” Blackburn said. “We’ve got a lot guys in here that are hungry. We’re a good ballclub.”