SAN FRANCISCO — Paul Blackburn doesn’t have the typical qualities of an “ace” starter. His fastball doesn’t blaze through the zone. There’s no particularly devastating breaking ball in his arsenal. Yet, nearly a month into the regular season, few pitchers have been better.
On a day in which the lone run scored came on a leadoff home run from a returning Chad Pinder, Blackburn helped make that early lead stick with five shutout innings in a 1-0 victory over the Giants on Wednesday night at Oracle Park. It marked the first time in A’s franchise history that the club won a game 1-0 on a leadoff home run.
Blackburn allowed just three hits and one walk with four strikeouts, consistently putting up zeros with little room for error.
Here’s a look at the American League ERA leaders among qualified pitchers, through Wednesday:
It begs the question … just how is he doing this?
“He’s mixing in that breaking ball really well and keeping hitters off-balance,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “He’s throwing more changeups than he has in the past. He’s not walking guys to add to the trouble. Overall, he’s just done a great job of commanding the baseball and giving us a chance to win every time he takes the hill.”
If you’re looking for one key to Blackburn’s early success, it starts with his curveball. Entering Wednesday’s outing, opposing hitters were just 1-for-13 against it with six strikeouts in the 44 times he’d thrown it. It’s the pitch he often went to in big moments against San Francisco, using it as the putaway pitch on two of his four strikeouts.
“It’s a pitch that has come a long way for me,” Blackburn said of his curveball. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in it over the course of this year. It gives [hitters] a different look. Especially with how much I’ve been pitching up, I feel like it plays off my fastball.”
That fastball comes with some serious sinking action, and it certainly caught the attention of a Giants’ offense whose 91 runs entering the day were most in the Majors.
“This is one of those where you tip your caps to your opponent,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “I thought [Blackburn’s] sinker was good. I think that’s his signature pitch. He was staying off barrels with it and throwing strikes with it.”
Blackburn didn’t exactly dominate his way through this start, and that’s what perhaps enhances its overall impressiveness. Pitching with traffic on the bases through the first three innings, he was able to produce a double-play ball in each frame. The biggest came in the third. After an error and infield single loaded the bases for Brandon Belt, A’s catcher Sean Murphy made a visit to the mound to discuss how to attack the Giants slugger. Four pitches later, Blackburn caught Belt off-balance with a changeup for what turned into an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play to preserve the one-run lead.
That ability to get a ground ball when needed is who Blackburn knows he can be at his best.
“I think just knowing myself more and what pitches to throw to get those ground balls, it’s huge,” Blackburn said. “I take pride in getting ground balls. It gets you out of big jams. It’s awesome. I like keeping the ball on the ground, and that’s what has been working for me.”
Considering Blackburn was a supplemental first-round pick by the Cubs in 2012, this is who the A’s thought he could one day turn into. Of course, as is the case with many pitchers, his journey here has been anything but smooth.
Following a promising rookie campaign in 2017 with Oakland, Blackburn missed most of ‘18 with a broken forearm and spent the next three years bouncing up and down from the Minor Leagues. Persevering through the lows, Blackburn now appears to be establishing himself as a big leaguer.
“It’s awesome,” said Pinder, a teammate of Blackburn’s since 2017. “You’re not going to find a better guy in this clubhouse than Pauly B. The guy has grinded and worked his tail off to get to where he’s at. It’s really fun to watch.”
The cherry on top of Blackburn’s stellar outing on Wednesday was that it came in his first career outing at Oracle Park, a stadium quite familiar to the Heritage High alum who grew up in nearby Brentwood, Calif.
“It’s kind of cool, honestly,” Blackburn said. “Growing up coming to many games here and being able to pitch in a park I came to, it’s a cool feeling.”
The A’s bullpen ensured Blackburn his third win of 2022 with an equally superb relief effort. Finishing it off was Dany Jiménez, who is now 4-for-4 in save opportunities after turning in a quick 1-2-3 ninth, aided by a strong play by first baseman Seth Brown. Initially ruled safe, the call was overturned in Oakland’s favor after a replay review.
“The bullpen has done an exceptional job,” Kotsay said. “We talked about giving these guys a soft landing into the big leagues. They’ve obviously built some confidence through this process. There’s been some success down there for a lot of guys and, hopefully, we can continue this momentum.”