February 3, 2023

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HRs, lights-out 'pen pick up Blackburn in joint effort

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ANAHEIM — When Paul Blackburn is pitching, he often knows where it’s going. 

A little over a month into the season, the 28-year-old has emerged as one of the biggest surprises of 2022. And while Friday night in Anaheim wasn’t his most efficient outing, he held his own against one of baseball’s premier lineups for the second time in six days in a 4-2 A’s win.

“I feel like my command wasn’t usually what it’s been,” Blackburn said. “Being able to make pitches with my back up against the wall, that definitely gives you confidence moving forward.” 

Blackburn threw 94 pitches over 4 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and two runs while walking two and striking out five. It’s the sixth time in eight starts he has given up one run or fewer. Unlike his previous appearance Saturday against the Angels, he left this one with a lead. 

“Paul did an amazing job,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “It’s a tough situation there to go out and get them. [He] battled and gave us a chance to win.”

Shortly after his team scored twice to go up 3-2 in the fifth, Blackburn challenged Mike Trout on a full count with a sinker. Trout didn’t swing, and the pitch was on the outside corner of the strike zone, a called third strike.

“Honestly, I feel like my sinker’s been good this year,” Blackburn said. “That guy’s the best in the business and it was just kind of like, ‘OK, here’s what’s been working for me against you and let’s see who wins.'”

Blackburn then fanned Shohei Ohtani after Trout, departing once Anthony Rendon connected for a double. But that would conclude the Angels’ offensive attack on the night, as Sam Moll, Zach Jackson, A.J. Puk and Dany Jiménez fired 4 1/3 hitless innings, joining forces to limit an Angels club that has scored the second-most runs and boasts the third-highest OPS in the Majors.

“Every guy came in tonight has been doing a great job of performing this year,” Kotsay said. “It’s good to see [them] hold the lead and be successful again.”

Blackburn began the night fourth in the AL in ERA at 1.67, with his average of 1.19 walks per nine innings the fifth-lowest such total in the AL. While both those numbers increased slightly on the night, he managed to escape some potential disasters.

Taylor Ward, one of the Major’s standout performers thus far this season, had three good at-bats against the right-hander. Two of them ended up in the gloves of Oakland outfielders without anything to show for it. Ward connected off Blackburn in the first on a drive with a 103.6 mph exit velocity, a booming shot to the deepest part of the Angel Stadium outfield, where it was caught by Ramón Laureano.

Blackburn didn’t escape the opening inning unscathed. He uncharacteristically yielded his two walks, bookended by a two-out rally that gave the Angels an early lead. Ohtani drew an intentional pass, stole second, and came around on a single from Rendon.

“Early on, I didn’t really have a feel for anything,” said Blackburn, who had a no-decision after allowing a run in 6 2/3 innings last Saturday. “I kind of got out of my mechanics a little bit.”

Ward was able to double down the left-field line to begin the third. Trout followed with another two-bagger in a similar spot to answer an early A’s score and put Los Angeles in front.

Hits by Chad Wallach and Andrew Velazquez threatened to add more in the fourth, but Ward’s long fly ball to right field was tracked down by Luis Barrera near the warning track.

After Oakland regained the lead on a two-run homer from Seth Brown, the duo of Blackburn and Moll struck out three to deliver a shut-down frame.

Oakland tacked on another run in the next inning after Barrera doubled to lead off and advanced on successive sacrifice fly balls.

The A’s showed improvements on a woeful offense that entered Friday with the league’s lowest batting average (.205), on-base percentage (.273), and slugging percentage (.314). The signs of progress came early when Jed Lowrie took Angels starter Chase Silseth deep in the first.

“We got some guys in the lineup that can do damage,” Kotsay said. “It was good to see the ball go out of the park tonight.”

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