It took almost six hours, but the Twins were able to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Brewers on Sunday. To do so, they needed to overcome another non-quality start from Nick Blackburn, who yielded four runs over six innings in what sadly qualifies as one of his best outings this season.
The right-hander's results weren't bad until Corey Hart took him deep for a three-run homer with two outs in the fifth, but he had been dancing on a tight rope all day. Milwaukee put runners in scoring position in each of the first four innings only to come away with one run; indeed, Hart's back-breaker seemed inevitable.
It was a typically ineffective effort from Blackburn, who has turned in only one quality start in 10 outings this year.
Granted, this isn't necessarily an earth-shattering development. We've seen him struggle before. But in past instances, his periods of turmoil have directly coincided with arm ailments, as his two worst seasons have both been followed by surgeries
. This year, Blackburn's health did not seem to be in question while he cruised through spring training with a 2.12 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 17 innings, but his performance since the start of April has been inexplicably dreadful and hardly reminiscent of his glory days.
In 2008 and 2009, Blackburn was a valuable starter – an inexpensive, above-average innings-eater. During that period, he made up for high hit rates by commanding the zone and hitting his spots relentlessly, averaging around a walk per game. This season, he has issued multiple walks in seven of his 10 starts and thrown a career-low 60 percent of his pitches for strikes.
Blackburn routinely ranks as one of the most hittable pitchers in baseball, and that's certainly been true this year; his opponents' batting average of .329 is nearly 20 points higher than any qualifying starter. A guy like that simply can't survive with mediocre command, and that's where he's at right now. We're not seeing many signs that it's ready to turn around, either.
Unfortunately, the Twins have little choice but to stick with him at this point. With Carl Pavano and P.J. Walters both on the disabled list, the club is already short on starters. Beyond that, they have a vested interest in letting Blackburn work through these issues and try to recapture the form that made him effective in the past. Like it or not, he's under contract next year for $5.5 million, and if the Twins are going to swallow that money and cut bait they'd better be completely certain he doesn't have it in him any more to produce the way he did in his early years.
I'm not ready to jump to that conclusion yet, and neither are they I'm sure. But the team's patience can't last forever. Especially with a guy who hasn't been able to put together a full season since 2009.