Blackburn sharp in season debut, beats Royals 4-1
OAKLAND » Paul Blackburn looked as good as he ever has and maybe better.
Surely after a nearly flawless six-inning performance in a 4-1 win over the Kansas City Royals, the 10th different starter for the Athletics this season would explain exactly how it was that he was such a cool customer in his 2018 debut.
Turns out Blackburn was a nervous wreck.
“The last 48 hours have been pretty rough for me,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think I’ve eaten anything. Just sitting there, stomach turning . . . excitement, nerves, just getting back out there and competing with the guys.”
Which came as a surprise to Jonathan Lucroy, the veteran catcher who considers himself a pretty good judge of the human condition.
“Usually I’m pretty good at picking up vibes,” Lucroy said. “I didn’t get that vibe.”
Blackburn, who was shut down in spring training with a slow-to-heal forearm strain, gave up just three hits and threw 67 pitches — 52 of them strikes. He didn’t walk anybody, and in fact never had a threeball count, to go along with three strikeouts.
The score was tied 1-1 after Blackburn departed following the top of the sixth, with the Royals getting a home run from Alcides Ecobar in the second inning and the Athletics getting a tape-measure shot from Matt Olson against losing pitcher Jason Hammel (26) in the fourth.
The Brentwood product was rewarded by his teammates in the bottom of the sixth, when a double by Matt Chapman and singles by Marcus Semien and Stephen Piscotty drove in three runs to make him the pitcher of record.
Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit and Blake Treinen each had a scoreless inning to finish it off as the A’s improved to 32-31, with Treinen getting his 14th save. It was over in two hours and 18 minutes.
There were only 7,903 fans in the stands, and that included Blackburn’s parents, grandparents and family friends. He was facing the Royals, who fell to 21- 42.
Yet Blackburn was more nervous than his major league debut with the A’s last season or any other start that he can remember.
“It’s just like a huge sign of relief, I guess, `OK, I can breathe again now,’ “Blackburn said. “I’m not usually like that. I have nerves coming into every start, but not like this was. I think it was excitement as well as nerves and wanting to get back out there.”
Blackburn may have been nervous, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t confident.
“I believe in myself,” Blackburn said. “Every time I’m out there I believe I’m going to get everybody out. Sometimes that’s not the case, some days it is. I felt good the whole rehab process and throwing off the mound and everything. I was ready.”
Blackburn had a couple of practice outings in Arizona and just one Triple-A rehab start for Class A Stockton. He gave up eight hits in 3 2/3 innings.
But the A’s were short of pitching and called him up anyway. Even manager Bob Melvin said it a less than ideal arrangement.
“I think it was more faith in what we’ve seen in the past,” Melvin said. “You can’t take a lot of stock of what you see in rehab . . . but to throw six innings like that, it’s way ahead of what we expected.”
Olson marveled at Blackburn’s command and tempo.
“That was awesome,” Olson said. “To be able to come out in a big league game, his first start of the year, and go six with just one mistake was huge.”
Blackburn became the latest A’s pitcher to kneel at the altar of Lucroy, who has become a key piece in holding together a ravaged pitching staff.
“Honestly, his game plan, it was so in depth, it was jut incredible,” Blackburn said. “I’d heard a lot of great things about him and I trusted him with everything. I didn’t shake off anything tonight. Every time he put a sign down, I had conviction with everything.”
• Olson’s home run, his 13th, came after a 9-for-20 trip with three homers.
• The A’s extended their season-long streak of errorless games to seven, including a spectacular diving catch by center fielder Dustin Fowler off the bat of Ramon Torres to end the eighth inning.
• Catcher Bruce Maxwell was sent to Triple-A Nashville to make room for Blackburn on the roster. Maxwell was batting .182 in 18 games.
• The crowd was the 11th of less than 10,000 since the start of the season.
• Fowler batted leadoff, with Semien dropped into the No. 6 spot. Semien will move back up in the lineup soon, but the A’s would love to see Fowler seize the leadoff role.
“Just changing things up a little bit,” Melvin said. “Sometimes you want to get a guy out of a certain spot and give him a look somewhere else. Marcus has been such a versatile guy for us over the years, whether he’s hitting at the bottom, in the middle, he can get on base, he can score runs, he can knock in runs too.
“There’s no doubt he’ll be back up toward the top of the lineup, probably leading off against (Danny) Duffy on Saturday.”
Semien was 0-for-19 on the A’s five- game trip to Kansas City and Texas but singled his first time up Thursday to go along with his run- scoring single in the sixth.
• Reliever Santiago Casilla, off a rehab assignment for the Class A Stockton Ports in San Jose, could be reinstated to the roster as soon as today.
• Outfielder Boog Powell (right knee) was transferred to the 60- day disabled list.