Blackburn's gem helps Twins down Pirates
Coming out of spring training, Nick Blackburn was fourth in the Minnesota Twins' rotation.
While other Twins starters have struggled with injuries and inconsistency over the first 2 1/2 months of the season, the 27-year-old right-hander has calmly and quietly asserted himself as the team's best pitcher.
Blackburn tossed a six-hitter for his first career complete game Thursday, leading Minnesota to a 5-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"He's basically been the stabilizer," pitching coach Rick Anderson said.
Blackburn (6-2) struck out two and walked one to become the first Minnesota starter to go the distance since Kevin Slowey on July 28, 2008. Michael Cuddyer and Brian Buscher homered for the Twins, who took two of three from the Pirates.
Zach Duke (7-5) allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings for the Pirates, who lost their 13th straight road series to an AL opponent. The last time Pittsburgh won on the road in interleague play was at Tampa Bay in 2003.
"I thought Zach threw the ball really good," Pirates manager John Russell said. "Unfortunately, Blackburn was real good."
Blackburn has not lost since May 5, when he lasted just 3 1-3 innings against Detroit.
Since then, the even-keeled pitcher has gone at least seven innings in eight of nine starts. The only time he didn't was when he allowed two runs in six innings of a victory over Tampa Bay on May 31.
While Scott Baker and Glen Perkins have missed time because of injuries and Francisco Liriano has struggled in his second full season back from Tommy John surgery, Blackburn has stepped to the forefront.
"Today I was pretty comfortable. I didn't feel like anything was going wrong," he said. "Everything was kind of in my control for the most part. It's a good feeling when you're out there."
He allowed only two runners past first base in the first eight innings before Eric Hinske doubled and scored on a single by Adam LaRoche, spoiling the shutout bid.
"That's a little disappointing, but I'll take it," Blackburn said. "That's the first time I've gone all nine, so I was excited about that. Maybe next time."
Brendan Harris had three hits and Justin Morneau added an RBI double for the Twins, who were without .425-hitting catcher Joe Mauer (flu).
Minnesota loaded the bases with nobody out in the third inning, but Duke allowed just one run on Morneau's double-play grounder to escape with a 2-0 deficit.
Duke also stranded a runner on third in the fifth by getting Carlos Gomez to ground out to third base and Harris to fly out to center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who covered almost as much of the Metrodome's outfield turf during this series as the puffy white roof.
After watching McCutchen use track star-like speed to chase down four fly balls in the gaps in the fourth and fifth innings, Cuddyer did the only thing he could to avoid that - he hit it over the fence in center for a 3-0 lead in the sixth.
Left fielder Nyjer Morgan had no such luck. Morgan lost two more balls against the baseball-colored roof on Thursday and made an error that allowed Nick Punto to reach third on a double in the fifth.
In the eighth, an exasperated Morgan lost a high pop fly from Cuddyer, who raced to third base for a triple. After Cuddyer was thrown out at the plate on a fielder's choice, Buscher hit a two-run homer for a 5-0 lead.
The Twins move into a new outdoor ballpark next season, and Morgan couldn't be happier.
"They need to take that thing off. Take it off," Morgan said of the Teflon roof as he chuckled. "I don't want to see this place no more. They can come blow this (thing) down."
Brandon Moss had two hits for the Pirates. ... Duke has received a total of four runs in his five losses this season. ... Cuddyer became the fifth Twins player to reach 10 or more homers this season. They haven't had that many in double digits since 2005. The last time the Twins had five players hit 20 or more homers was 1986: Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky and Roy Smalley.