The Twins gave Nick Blackburn every chance to battle through his struggles this year. They were patient with their contact-happy right-hander, freshly signed to a four-year contract extension; patient to a fault, in my opinion. But when Blackburn turned in another dud on July 18, allowing five runs on nine hits over just five innings in a key game against the White Sox (in which Brian Duensing's lengthy and outstanding relief appearance aided a Twins victory), Ron Gardenhire and the Twins coaching staff could no longer find a way to justify his continued presence in the rotation.
They did what had to be done. They demoted Blackburn and his 6.53 ERA to the bullpen. After one shaky relief appearance, Blackburn was sent to the minors. He hadn't been there since late in the 2007 season.
Back in Triple-A Rochester, Blackburn seemed to quickly regain his confidence against inferior hitters. In his first three starts with the Red Wings, he allowed only two runs on 11 hits over 16 1/3 innings while ratcheting up his ground ball rate. Despite the fact that Blackburn looked significantly worse in his fourth start with Rochester (5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 ER), he got the call back to the big-league club, as Kevin Slowey's aching elbow had opened a vacancy in the rotation. Francisco Liriano's bout with a tired arm necessitated that Blackburn start Monday night's game, on his first day back with the team.
Despite Blackburn's 2.49 ERA and 65 percent GB rate during his minor-league stint, I was skeptical as to how he'd perform on a hot Texas night against a playoff-caliber offense. But you know what? He pitched damn well. In seven innings, Blackburn allowed only three runs, and for once I can say his results don't accurately reflect how effective he was. A couple infield singles led to damage in the first, and a muffed routine double play by J.J. Hardy allowed a run to cross in the fifth. All in all, Blackburn didn't allow much hard contact and looked a lot more like his 2008/09 self.
Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that this one start signifies a 180-degree turnaround for Blackburn. I've watched him get mashed up by opposing offenses too many times this year to be so easily convinced. What I offer is a plea to Blackburn: please, keep it going.
We know you're capable of it. We remember your final five games last season, when you bounced back from a brutal eight-week slump to lead the Twins to four pivotal victories down the stretch in the regular season (posting a 1.65 ERA) and then nearly helped pilot them to a victory at Yankee Stadium with a gritty ALDS performance. Heck, even more recently, we remember how you bounced back from an awful April this season to win all five of your May starts, posting a 2.65 ERA.
Now would be a great time for you to put together one of your little signature runs. Because the Twins are trying to build separation in the division standings and Slowey's status is uncertain. This time, there's no Brian Duensing to be called upon if you should fail; Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship are simply not appealing fallback options.
You are a pitcher who has had many ups and downs in your young career. This season has mostly been a valley, but you can erase a lot of ill will by stepping up now, in the rotation's time of need.
It's not like you haven't done it before.