Twins' Blackburn answers critics in MLB return

BY foxsports • July 20, 2012

This was the kind of start the Minnesota Twins had been waiting for from Nick Blackburn all season long.

After an encouraging spring training, Blackburn struggled during the regular season. Eventually, it led to a demotion to Triple-A Rochester for the 30-year-old right-hander. Yet after two starts with the Red Wings, Blackburn appeared to regain form as he allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings Friday in the Twins' 2-1 extra-innings win against Kansas City.

"He made it look effortless, (and) that was something he had been working on," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Blackburn. "(He had) all of his pitches. Good changeups, good sinkers and good sliders. That was a great performance. Desperately needed by him, for him and for our baseball team."

Blackburn left after a two-out, two-strike double by Yuniesky Betancourt in the sixth inning resulted in the only run Blackburn allowed. Betancourt's double rolled to the corner in left field past Josh Willingham, allowing Eric Hosmer to score from first to tie the game at 1-1. Left-hander Tyler Robertson relieved Blackburn and struck out Alex Gordon to leave Betancourt at second.

That closed Blackburn's line as he allowed just one run with no walks in 6 2/3 innings. It was Blackburn's longest outing of the year and just the second time he pitched into the seventh inning. The other time he did so was his first start of the season on April 9 against the Angels, when he faced three batters and allowed two runs without retiring an out in the seventh.

Blackburn was demoted after a start on July 3 in which he allowed six runs on eight hits in just four innings. At the time, he was 4-5 with an 8.10 ERA in 13 starts.

In two starts with Rochester after he was optioned, Blackburn went 2-0 and allowed just one earned run in 15 innings while also issuing just one walk. That success carried over to the mound on Friday at Kauffman Stadium, as Blackburn was able to scatter seven hits.

More importantly, it appeared as if Blackburn's sinker was back to form. He recorded nine groundouts, including six in the first three innings, and induced a ground ball double play in the second inning.

"He wasn't trying to overthrow the ball," Gardenhire said. "You didn't see veins popping out in his neck. You saw effortless. He was kind of flowing right through it."

Added Joe Mauer: "He came back for his first start and gave us a great effort. It all starts with that."

Blackburn's strong start continued a trend set the previous few days. On Saturday, left-hander Francisco Liriano struck out 10 Orioles batters in six innings. One day later, right-hander Cole De Vries allowed just one run in six innings against Baltimore.

Unlike those two outings, however, Blackburn's encouraging start came in a Twins win. Josh Willingham drove in Joe Mauer from second base with a base hit in the top of the 11th inning for what proved to be the game-winning run.

It was Blackburn, though, who kept the Twins in the game by allowing just one run. In nine of his previous 13 starts before his demotion, Blackburn allowed at least four runs.

That wouldn't have cut it on Friday. Luckily for Minnesota, Blackburn followed the leads of Liriano and De Vries.

"That was really a nice one tonight," Gardenhire said. "We've had some pretty decent performances, guys getting us into the second half of the game, which we've said over and over just has to happen for us to survive with our bullpen."

Robby Incmikoski contributed to this report.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.

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