SAN FRANCISCO — Paul Blackburn has made countless trips to Oracle Park over the years. When you grow up in the Bay Area as a huge Giants fan, it comes with the territory.
Blackburn’s trip on Tuesday to the Giants stadium, though, will be unlike any of his previous trips. This journey will be a real dream come true for the A’s pitcher.
The former Heritage High of Oakley star will be standing on the mound making his fourth start of the season for the A’s and his first ever appearance in the stadium he visited as a kid while watching his biggest heroes, Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt.
“Being on the field here and actually soaking it all in… it’s awesome,” said Blackburn, who has made a couple trips here as a visiting player without getting into a game. “It’s just kind of cool. Just growing up and coming to so many games here while just being a fan.”
The 28-year-old admits he’ll probably be a little nervous, but then again, “That’s every start,” he said with a smile. “I’m more anxious. It’s exciting.”
Excitement has certainly been a constant theme throughout Blackburn’s first three starts since he earned a spot in the A’s rotation this spring.
In a season of surprises so far, Blackburn’s emergence belongs at the top of them for the A’s. He’s been flat-out dominant, going exactly five innings in each of his three starts while compiling a 2-0 record with a pristine 1.80 ERA, and a more impressive 0.80 WHIP.
Sean Murphy, the man catching Blackburn’s pitches, loves what he has seen coming his way.
“He’s been great,” Murphy said. “Locating all of his pitches from him, pitching up in the zone. …just great so far.”
It’s been no mistake that Blackburn’s walked just one batter and struck out 14 batters. He’s more focused, relaxed and confident. This clearly isn’t the same pitcher who arrived this season with pedestrian career pitching numbers – 6-11 with a 5.74 ERA.
“He’s trusting his stuff. He’s throwing strikes, he’s moving the ball around better and better,” A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson said before Tuesday’s game. “He’s been doing a great job disrupting hitters’ timing.”
It may come as a shock to realize Blackburn is now in his sixth season with the A’s. Although Blackburn has never spent more than a month and a half in the major leagues in any season, he’s one Frankie Montas trade away from becoming the longest-tenured A’s player.
Such is the residue of the massive A’s rebuild.
Blackburn and Montas are the only players to play for Oakland in each of the last six seasons, although Blackburn’s actual time with the A’s had been mostly limited to spot starts before this year. He’s only pitched in 33 games in the span of his six seasons. Some of that can be blamed on injuries (hand contusion in 2017, forearm and elbow ailments in 2018), but he’s also had myriad trips from Triple-A to the majors, including a four-day span in 2020 when he was up and down four times in four days.
It was fair to wonder if Blackburn’s time in Oakland was up when he was designated for assignment before last season. Yet, the A’s still saw something in him and kept Blackburn after he cleared waivers by outrighting him to Triple-A. That’s not to say the few games he pitched in for Oakland last year portended to this year’s early-season breakout – Blackburn finished 2021 with a less-than-ideal 5.87 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 38.1 innings.
It turns out the numbers may not have defined who Blackburn really is on the mound. Some of that can be attributed to Blackburn’s experience of him.
“I feel like just mentality-wise things have changed for me,” he said. “To just be able to kind of slow the game down when you’re out there. You want to do good, you want to do good so bad when you’re younger you’re trying to take that next step and somewhat make a name for yourself and show you belong. It leads to added stress and pressure.
“This year I just really just focused on just being in the moment.”
Now he’s ready for a moment Tuesday night that’s been years in the making.
Laureano hitless in rehab: Outfielder Ramón Laureano went 0-for-7 with three strikeouts in his first two games of his rehab stint at Triple-A Las Vegas heading into Tuesday. He’ll be eligible to return to the A’s once his 80-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance ends on May 8.
Vucinich update: Recently retired A’s clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich, who suffered a heart attack over the weekend, had a second surgical procedure Tuesday morning near his home in Arizona. Vucinich, who tied Connie Mack’s A’s longevity record by working 54 years with Oakland, had two more stints placed in one of his arteries. Although he’s facing a long rehab process, doctors have said Vucinich’s prognosis is good, according to his daughter, Kayla.
Lowrie, Pinder, Trivino remain out: Mark Kotsay didn’t offer any clarity on the status of three veterans on the COVID-19 list, other than to note that Friday will mark the 10-day mark since veteran infielders Jed Lowrie and Chad Pinder and closer Lou Trivino went on the list .
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism