The bullpen performed admirably in Oakland yesterday and a late two-run blast by Delmon Young (who had a tremendous series) pulled the Twins within one run, but ultimately the team came up just short in a 5-4 loss.
These factors made it all the more frustrating that Nick Blackburn put the Twins in such a huge hole to begin with. Despite pitching in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly parks and against one of the worst offenses in the American League, Blackburn lasted just 2 2/3 innings and surrendered five runs on 10 hits.
After a terrible month of April, Blackburn seemed to be coming around in May when he went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA and made a bid for Pitcher of the Month honors. Now, he's strung together his two worst starts of the year. Last week in Seattle he failed to complete four innings and yesterday he failed to complete even three.
In both cases, the opposing offense was terrible. In both cases, he allowed five runs on 10 hits, putting his team in a huge early hole on the road. In both cases, he failed to strike out a single batter.
That last sentence provides us with a pretty good explanation for Blackburn's struggles. He has now failed to record even one strikeout in five of his 11 starts this season. No other Twins starter has done it once.
Blackburn has never been a strikeout specialist, but his inability to miss bats this year has reached ridiculous levels. Of the 294 batters he's faced, he has struck out 17 of them. His rate of 2.27 strikeouts per nine innings ranks as the worst in all of baseball by a wide margin; next worst is John Lannan at 2.90. The next worst mark in the AL is Mitch Talbot at 3.91.
Blackburn's ability to put "sink" on the ball is a talking point for Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven every time he pitches, but no amount of sink is going to make up for such an exorbitant contact rate and Blackburn doesn't even induce ground balls at an elite rate. His 48.3 ground ball percentage ranks 35th out of 108 qualifying pitchers.
Hitters are making contact with 96 percent of Blackburn's offerings and they're elevating plenty of those pitches, so it should come as no surprise that the league is hitting .338 against the right-hander. This isn't the result of bad luck, as Blackburn's batting average on balls in play isn't too far above the league average and is basically in line with his career norms. It's not that a ridiculous number of balls in play are turning into hits behind Blackburn, it's that he's allowing a ridiculous number of balls in play to begin with.
Whether something is wrong with Blackburn physically or the league has just completely figured him out, something needs to be changed because there's almost no way he'll succeed when allowing this much contact. He's had a tough enough time posting solid numbers with a K/9 rate in the 4 range in years past, doing so with a rate that is close to 2 is basically impossible, especially with a middling grounder rate.
With Blackburn, Brendan Harris and Denard Span all struggling to varying to degrees, Bill Smith's decision to tender them all unnecessary multi-year contracts during the offseason is looking iffy. At least we can look at the numbers and see that Harris and Span have been somewhat unlucky; Blackburn is due for more of the same unless he can get back to striking out a remotely acceptable number of hitters.