Nick Blackburn has flirted with a shutout in several of his starts this season. Each time, Lucy has reached in and yanked the football away, and I hope Blackburn is as good a sport as Charlie Brown. Today, he gets a complete game win, and the Twins take the series from the Tigers, two games to one.
Blackburn faced Rick Porcello, a Tiger rookie. At their last meeting in early May, Porcello pitched very well and glided through the game behind an offensive outpouring from Detroit to win 9-0. Today, their roles were nearly reversed: Blackburn won 6-2, and carried a 6-0 lead into the ninth.
For eight innings, Blackburn frustrated the Tigers with his pitch selection and location. Blackburn induced 12 groundball outs, threw six strikeouts, and let 10 outs fall harmlessly into outfielder’s gloves. But what he wants back are two fly balls.
In the ninth, with one out, low power threat Don Kelly skies one high to left center. Carlos Gomez is in center as a defensive replacement to preserve Blackburn’s gem, and Denard Span is patrolling left. They converge on the ball. Gomez may not be seeing it too well, so Span leaps for it and snags it too, too briefly. The ball pops out of his glove and Kelly hustles to second on the error.
Blackburn had gotten out of a bigger jam this afternoon, with two on in the sixth and one out. He can handle these last two outs, so let’s let that error go. Shake it off; shutout’s still intact.
Brandon Inge bats, and takes the measure of Blackburn. Is he tiring? Not appreciably—he starts with a called strike. Is he still locating pitches? Seems so—Inge fouls off a pitch, refuses to be deceived by a ball, and fouls off another. Is he, by any chance, willing to hang one of those sliders on a nice little trajectory, the only bad pitch of the entire afternoon?
Sadly, yes. Inge homers and the Tigers claim two runs, only one of them earned. The shutout is lost and Blackburn composes himself. It takes a moment: Magglio Ordonez sneaks a single on the first pitch. Then Blackburn gets Josh Anderson to ground out, but that advances Ordonez to second. Next, Gerald Laird reaches on a lowly bunt single and you start to feel Blackburn may want some cheering up out there.
With the score 6-2 and men on first and third, the man on deck constitutes the tying run. That makes this a save opportunity, and Joe Nathan has been warming up since the inning began. Ron Gardenhire doesn’t want to take the complete game away from Blackburn, but he will if he must.
One out to go, and if Blackburn doesn’t make it, Nathan will surely be summoned. Opposing manager Jim Leyland would probably already have pulled his pitcher, as he demonstrated with his quick hook Friday night and his win-at-all-costs style. But Gardy gives Blackburn the chance, and Adam Everett grounds out. CG in the books, but no shutout.
The Twins did all their scoring in a rowdy fourth inning rampage. They sent ten men to the plate, and at one point eight consecutive Twins got on base with a hit or a walk. Joe Mauer laced a single into a hole the Tigers made by overthinking the infield shift to confound mighty Mauer. Justin Morneau cashed it in with interest with a home run, his 21st of the season. Yes, I know Mark Teixeira is starting the All-Star Game at first base, but Morneau is every bit as good, losing out only on market size.
Jason Kubel, the only Twin to get a hit off Porcello in the early May game, proved he’s got some Rubik’s Cube shortcut on the guy and singled.
The inning would have been a still bigger one if Kubel or Michael Cuddyer hadn’t failed to read the hit and run sign correctly. Kubel took off with Cuddy calmly watching the pitch at the plate; easy out at second. It’s impossible to tell who had it wrong, but the mistake cost an out.
Cuddy got a walk out of it, and Joe Crede and Delmon Young hit consecutive singles to get one more run across. Now it falls to Nick Punto to keep the surge alive. He’s been hitting a bit better lately, and got the game-winner yesterday. He relaxes at the plate and outwits Porcello to get a walk. Bases loaded.
Denard Span hits what might have been a double play ball, or at least a lowly single. But shortstop Everett tries to make an off-balance throw and sends the ball sailing. Three more runs score.
That’s all the Twins need or want. It’s Blackburn’s second complete game this season, and it may be some solace for his start a week and a half ago against the Brewers. That was another complete game bid, but in the eighth inning two errors let the Brewers take the lead. One of the errors was Blackburn’s own errant throw to third. He ended up with a loss on eight innings pitched.
His start immediately prior to that little bit of baseball sorrow was a complete game against the Pirates. He’s had some hard luck losses, and his June record is tragedy itself: five starts and only one win, but an ERA that falls through the month to 3.10 and a total of 12 runs allowed. He turned in 7, 8, 9, 8, and 6 innings pitched. It’s everything you want from a starting pitcher, without the offense to back it up; those four losses were by at most two run margins.
Blackburn, one hopes, is simply waiting for things to even out. Baseball is notorious for not balancing heartbreak and joy, but with this win, Blackburn at least starts July in the happiest way possible.
I see signs of hope everywhere. In the month of June, the Twins lost only two series, against the pesky Mariners and the fortunate Astros. They won five series and split two others. They start July by gaining two games on the Tigers. It’s easy to be too hopeful (or too despairing) in baseball, but I’m in the hopeful column today. The team is three games over .500 for the first time this season, and a little momentum going into the series with the Yankees feels good.