It had to be over; Nick Blackburn saw the swing Jeremy Owens put on the ball, heard the sound off the bat.
After Thursday night’s 12-0 win over the host Durham Bulls, Blackburn said he was sure Owens’ sixth-inning shot to left field would stop his shutout string in its tracks. Blackburn has given up three runs in June, but none has been earned over 39 innings. Overall, his streak of not giving up an earned run has stretched over 41 1/3 innings.
With one out in the sixth and the score already 12-0, Blackburn was up in the count 1-and-2 and fired in another fastball, this one a four-seamer on the outer half. Owens was waiting for it and crushed it to left-center field. But at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the left-field “Blue Monster” fence stretches into left center, and in the power alley it’s 371 feet, with the combination of wall and alley making that the toughest part of the park to hit a home run. Owens’ shot caromed off the wall with a foot or two to spare, he was held to a double, and Blackburn got out of the inning with a pair of groundouts, his streak intact.
“I knew it was gone as soon as he hit it–it was crushed. That’s out of most parks,” Blackburn said. “You have to have a little bit of luck.”
For the rest of the game, Blackburn made his own luck. Don’t let the fact that he gave up seven hits and had only two strikeouts fool you–he dominated the Bulls. Blackburn worked with a two-seam fastball with good bore and sink that sat in the 86-90 mph range, and used his 90-94 mph four-seamer to both sides of the plate. In the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, he mixed in more curveballs (several with good depth) and changeups, keeping the Bulls off-balance. He also worked with a quick tempo, rarely if ever leaving the dirt of the mound, instead standing back on the rubber to receive the throw from catcher Jose Morales and getting ready to immediately get back to work.
He picked up his fifth victory in eight International League starts and kept him a perfect 5-0, 0.00 in June, with 21 strikeouts and one walk in 39 innings. He credited his surge to improved fitness after recovering from knee injuries the past two seasons, as well as better extension and a longer stride in his delivery, which he worked to develop with Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn.
“Those are the same pitches I’ve been using the last three or four years,” said Blackburn, a 2001 draft-and-follow pick (29th round) out of Seminole (Okla.) JC, who entered the season just 30-36, 4.03 for his career. “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in and throwing harder than I have before. I’ve got great teammates playing defense, and catchers who are calling great pitches.
“I’ve never had anything close to this happen before. It’s been a lot of fun; we have a fun team, a great group of guys, and everything is just working right now.”
Manager Stan Cliburn said the Red Wings have rallied behind their 25-year-old emerging ace, who is needed even more after promotions from the rotation of pitchers such as Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and, most recently, Matt Garza. Blackburn threw back-to-back complete-game shutouts earlier in the month and has helped Rochester pull within a game of Buffalo in the IL’s North Division.
“The team’s having fun playing behind him–Stu teaches the guys, our whole organization teaches to stay on top of the mound, stay right on the rubber and work quick, and the guys make plays behind him,” Stan Cliburn said.
“That guy just keeps going out and putting up zeroes. He takes pride in his streak and the team has pride in the streak.”
And thanks in part to the left-field wall in Durham, Blackburn still has a streak.
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