Blackburn Emerges From Shadow Of His Teammates
ROCHESTER, N.Y.—It's easy to overlook Nick Blackburn.
After all, he began the season surrounded by four higher profile starters in a stacked Rochester rotation.
The Twins' seemingly endless pipeline of pitchers included a fantastic four at Rochester: righthander Matt Garza, the organization's No. 1 prospect; lefthander Glen Perkins, a first-round pick—from the University of Minnesota, no less; righthander Kevin Slowey, who boasted an absurd 57-5 strikeouts-walks ratio at the time of his big league callup; and righthander Scott Baker, the 2005 International League ERA champion.
Brent Clevlen hit just .219/.309/.329 in 146 at-bats during the season’s first half, looking overmatched against Triple-A pitching. Then he broke his right ring finger in a game at Pawtucket May 13 and missed two months. The Toledo center fielder, whom the Tigers took in the second round of the 2002 draft, came back from the injury strong, bashing five home runs and three doubles in his first nine games to help keep the Mud Hens atop the Western Division.
"I knew I was better than what I was doing, but sometimes you go through that," Clevlen, 23, told the Toledo (Ohio) Blade. "Breaking my finger was like a fresh start for me. I was out eight weeks, so it’s like a new season for me. Hopefully I can finish up strong."
• Garrett Jones took an odd route to the big leagues, but the Rochester slugger’s numbers this season became too loud for the Twins to ignore. Selected by the Braves from an Illinois high school in the 14th round of the 1999 draft and released three years later, Jones batted .295/.333/.508 with 11 home runs in 319 at-bats for Rochester, giving him 56 in two and a half seasons with the club.
Interestingly, the 26-year-old Jones became the first Red Wing since Don Baylor to club 20 or more homers in back-to-back seasons. A first baseman by trade, Jones has wisely taken to left field in deference to Justin Morneau.
• Colorado Springs had thrust itself to the forefront of the Pacific Conference’s Northern Division, a position Salt Lake had held throughout the first half. Third baseman Ian Stewart, the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2003, had been the club’s most visible prospect, but the play of two other Sky Sox was paying bigger dividends.
Right fielder Seth Smith, a second-round pick from Mississippi in 2004, led the minors with 46 doubles in 2006 and has continued his barrage this season after a miserable April in which he hit .226 with four extra-base hits. The 24-year-old lefthanded hitter’s average and power output climbed each month, and he was hitting .329/.389/.521 with 10 homers and 21 doubles through 307 at-bats.
Like Smith, first baseman Joe Koshansky started cool but has hit for more power as the season has progressed. The sixth-round pick from Virginia in 2004 was up to .321/.399/.526 with 15 home runs and 79 RBIs through 340 at-bats.
• The Mariners promote their prospects as aggressively as any organization, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Tacoma, where a 2006 and a 2007 draft pick had taken up residence in the Rainiers’ bullpen.
Righthander Kam Mickolio, an 18th-rounder from Utah Valley State in 2006, had gone 2-2, 4.15 in 10 appearances. His fastball had climbed into the mid-90s out of the bullpen, and he got great plane thanks to his 6-foot-9 frame. Brodie Downs, already 28 and a 23rd-round pick just this year, was 1-0, 3.60 in four games.
And Blackburn? He was headed back to Double-A New Britain for a third consecutive season.
"We didn't even know if we'd see him because of the great rotation we had," Rochester manager Stan Cliburn said.
But minor league rotations are set with pencils, not pens. Perkins, Baker, Slowey and Garza all were promoted to Minnesota during the first half of the season, leaving a hole the size of California in Rochester's rotation.
That's where Blackburn barged in. The previously unheralded righthander was promoted on May 16 and set the International League on its ear with a remarkable 44-inning streak from May 29 to July 3 in which he didn't allow an earned run.
The streak was the longest in Rochester franchise history since such statistics were first kept in 1967. It ended on a third-inning RBI single by Buffalo's Ryan Mulhern. Undaunted, Blackburn allowed only that one run all evening as the Red Wings won 10-3.
Control was a huge part of the streak. In a 46-inning stretch, Blackburn walked only one batter. Through mid-July, the Ada, Okla., native was 6-1, 2.09 with 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 771⁄3 innings—though he landed on the disabled list sin late July with a strained right forearm.
He also went 3-1, 3.08 in eight starts for New Britain, making him 10-2 overall this season.Getting His Legs Under Him
"He was under the radar," said Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn, Stan's identical twin. "Now he's on the radar. If the Twins asked me today, no doubt I would put my stamp on him."
That's high praise for a sixth-year pro who isn't even on the Twins 40-man roster.
Blackburn, the Twins' 29th-round pick in 2001 from Seminole State (Okla.) Junior College who signed the next year as a draft-and-follow, entered the season with an undistinguished record of 30-36, 4.04 in five seasons. His only stint above Double-A came in 2005, when he forged a 5.14 ERA in three starts for Rochester, a promotion which came only after Francisco Liriano and Baker were called up to the Twins. He was promptly shipped back to New Britain after his disappointing stint.
The 6-foot-4, 231-pound pitcher's success has not been built on fastball velocity. Instead, he tops out around 94 mph and relies on three other pitches—a changeup, a curve and a nasty slider—to keep hitters off balance. He's a complete pitcher, able to spot all of his pitches for strikes.
"His cutter is a true cut slider," Stu Cliburn said, "and he throws it 89, 90, 91 (mph), which is very hard for a cutter."
Blackburn had knee surgeries the past two seasons and now says he is in the best shape of his career. Stan Cliburn said Blackburn has improved greatly from the pitcher he managed at New Britain in 2005.
"He's in better shape and he's using his legs more," Cliburn said. "That's given him more strength, and more velocity on his fastball."
Stu Cliburn observed Blackburn for two starts this season before working with the pitcher on lengthening his stride and making better use of his powerful lower body.
"His hips, his butt, all the way down to his feet," Cliburn said. "It allowed him to take the pressure off his arm and utilize his legs more. It added two miles-per-hour on his fastball right away."Opting For The Diamond
If Blackburn had followed his father's path, he might be throwing footballs instead of fastballs these days. Chuck Blackburn played quarterback at NCAA Division II East Central University in Ada and once coached high school football. Nick played football through junior high, but gave it up to focus on baseball.
"It would be the middle of the summer," Nick recalls, "and I'd want to go to the pool or the lake or golf. I'd ask my friends and they'd say, 'Naw, we can't, we have football practice.' I wanted to have fun in the summer."
Blackburn wasn't a full-time pitcher in high school until his senior year. Instead, he played third and first base while pitching just 12 innings his junior year. He transferred to Del City High in Norman, Okla., for his senior year in 2000 and was able to pitch at the highest prep level in the state.
He was drafted in the 34th round that June by the Devil Rays, but Blackburn decided to hone his skills by playing at Seminole State JC.
"I was pretty fat in high school, so I don't think people looked into me too much," he said.
He struggled in his first two seasons in the lower minors, recording ERAs of 4.99 with Rookie-level Elizabethton and 4.86 with low Class A Quad City. He continued to slowly climb his way through the system, earning the win in the 2005 Florida State League all-star game before moving up to New Britain and Rochester that season. He spent all of 2006 with New Britain, going 7-8, 4.42.
The new and improved Blackburn is a sight for sore eyes, and those eyes belong to the Cliburn brothers. Slowey rejoined the Red Wings just before the big league all-star break, and since an amazing seven Red Wings pitchers have been promoted to the Twins this season, Blackburn was just what pitching-depleted Rochester needed.
"He throws strikes and he just attacks hitters," Stan Cliburn said. "He's composed and he's not afraid out there. The team loves playing behind him, and we love putting him out there every fifth day. Every time he pitches, we know we have a great chance to win."
Jim Mandelaro covers the Red Wings for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.