The outstanding clutch performance down the stretch helped fans forget about the rough patch that had preceded it. In the 11 games prior, Blackburn had gone 1-7 with a 7.36 ERA. Opponents hit .356 against him during that span, pounding 13 homers in 55 innings. The ugly string of games included one in which Blackburn helped blow a 10-run lead against the Athletics -- perhaps the year's most painful game -- and several others in which he lasted only a few innings and gave his team almost no chance to win. At times during these grueling couple of months, Blackburn seemed downright incapable of getting major-league hitters out.
As he has often done during his time with the Twins, Blackburn bounced back from this troubling stretch and made the adjustments necessary to get back on track. But his brutal run following the All Star break served as a reminder of the fickle nature of pitchers who fall into Blackburn's mold: low-strikeout, low-walk hurlers who allow a great deal of contact. Since Blackburn doesn't overpower hitters, he relies on the balls they hit off of him being converted into outs. And since he doesn't induce ground balls at an overwhelmingly high rate, his control over what happens with balls in play is limited.
It wasn't long ago that the Twins had a pitcher similar to Blackburn manning their rotation. It might be tough to remember at this point, but early in his time with the Twins Carlos Silva was indeed the same type of effective strike-throwing righty who relied on a sinking fastball to induce weak contact. Like Blackburn, Silva tended to allow a lot of hits, but his ability to limit walks and homers while drawing the occasional double play enabled him to be a successful pitcher during his first couple years in the Twins' rotation. In fact, comparing Silva's first two years with the Twins to Blackburn's two years in the rotation helps illustrate the similar styles:
Silva, 2004/05: 23-16, 3.84 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.4 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, .301 BAA
Blackburn, 2008/09: 22-22, 4.04 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 4.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, .291 BAA
Of course, we all know what happened to Silva in his third year with the Twins. He imploded, posting a 5.94 ERA while coughing up 38 home runs in 180 1/3 innings of work. Silva followed up that disastrous campaign with another solid season in '07 before signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Mariners, which ended up being an utter disaster for Seattle as Silva quickly ceased to be even remotely usable.
To be perfectly clear, this post is not meant to suggest that I expect Blackburn to meet the same fate as Silva. Plenty of pitchers have found prolonged success while posting middling strikeout rates and inducing grounders around 45 percent of the time (Joe Blanton is a good example). Furthermore, Blackburn is a good pitcher; he has put together three consecutive impressive seasons and has demonstrated that he can overcome his lack of overpowering stuff by making adjustments while pitching aggressively and fearlessly against big-league lineups.
But, Blackburn's post-break slump last year, along with Silva's 2006, should serve as a reminder that pitchers in this mold tread a rather thin line and don't have a whole lot of margin for error. If something is even slightly off, major-league hitters will take full advantage.
The Twins currently sport a solid rotation one-through-five, but they don't have much quality depth to speak of, so if Blackburn's game goes south it could mean trouble. For that reason, we'll all have to hope that the guy who takes the hill for the Twins this year is a lot more similar to that bulldog who took the team on his shoulders in the waning weeks of the 2009 season than the guy who was shelled repeatedly in the two months prior.
I think he will be.