OAKLAND — After a solid first outing coming off the 60-day disabled list, Oakland Athletics starter Paul Blackburn has been, in a word, horrid. Over his last three starts, Blackburn, 24, was 0-2 with a 12.71 ERA. Since not even reaching a three-ball count in his season debut against the Kansas City Royals, opposing batters were hitting .392 against him.
In a rotation that can ill afford any more breakdowns — with Andrew Triggs and Trevor Cahill still on the shelf — Oakland couldn’t not keep throwing Blackburn out there every fifth day. Over the first 1 1/3 innings on Friday, it appeared the A’s would get more of the same: 45 pitches, three hits and a hit batter.
Then Blackburn retired 14 of the next 15 men he faced and struck out five, finishing six innings for the first time since his first start back, and giving the A’s enough for a 3-1 win.
“Today, it was my intensity and my aggressiveness, kind of attacking them,” Blackburn said. “Early, I put myself in some bad counts against a really good lineup over there, but it was just keeping that intensity all the way through.”
From the third through the first out in the sixth, Blackburn threw just 51 pitches, and only reached three-ball counts on two hitters against an offense that’s eighth in the majors in batting, eighth in hits and fourth in runs scored.
“The stuff was pretty similar,” said manager Bob Melvin. “It got better as the game went along, but it was a matter of not throwing as many strikes, them fouling some balls off, and all of the sudden, from the third on, he was real efficient.”
Oakland (45-38) got on the board in the bottom of the second against Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer. Matt Olson beat the shift by lacing a 3-2 offering just inside the bag at third for a one-out double, and moved to third on a groundout by Stephen Piscotty.
Marcus Semien — who had just one hit in four big league at-bats against Bauer — brought Olson home with a liner to left for an RBI single. Semien would go 2-for-3 on the night — his first multi-hit game against Bauer since May 22, 2010, when he went 2-for-4 against the then-UCLA ace while playing shortstop for Cal at Evans Diamond. He said both of hits on the day came on hung Bauer curveballs.
Blackburn — who had thrown 47 pitches in the first two innings — got a shut-down third, retiring the Indians (44-36) in order on just 11 pitches.
“For me, it was finding that tempo and rhythm,” Blackburn said. “It was something that I feel like I’ve struggled with in the first couple innings, and once I get over that hump in the second inning, I felt more put-together. I’m not going step-by-step. It’s more fluid, and I’m more athletic.”
Blackburn settled in and found a rhythm with his fastball, spotting it at the bottom of the zone (getting good frames from Jonathan Lucroy), and using his off-speed pitches more effectively, getting 19 called strikes in his 98 pitches. His curveball was particularly effective — getting three of his five strikeouts with the pitch — but his slider was what set him up.
Of his 98 pitches, 39 were sliders, according to MLB PitchFX. Of those 39, seven were called strikes, and eight were fouled off.
“It’s just a pitch I can get in on lefties,” said Blackburn, who faced a lineup with with five left-handed hitters and two switch hitters on Friday. “That lineup — especially the lefty-stacked lineup — I felt like it was kind of to my advantage to ride in on their hands, and that was the game plan going in.”
He also got some defensive help in the fourth on a diving stop by Semien, and a smooth dig by first baseman Matt Olson for the second out.
“Games like that, you have to play good defense,” Melvin said. “Defense, confidence-wise in those games, is just like a home run, or just like an RBI hit. With their speed, especially at the top, you have to play good defense, keep them off base.”
Blackburn gave way to Ryan Buchter after getting a pop-out from cleanup man Edwin Encarnacion to lead off the seventh. Buchter easily retired the next two.
The A’s added another run in the bottom of the sixth, after a Matt Joyce single was cashed in Khris Davis, who hammered a first-pitch hanging breaking ball into the left field corner for a two-out RBI double.
“You’ve got to stay with a guy like that [Bauer], try to make him throw some pitches, try to get him out of the game at some point,” Melvin said. “They’re not afraid to throw him 125 pitches.”
That insurance run would prove crucial. After Buchter recorded the first out of the eighth, and then surrendered a one-out double by pinch hitter Yan Gomes, Yusmeiro Petit came in and hung a changeup to Francisco Lindor at the end of a seven-pitch at-bat for an RBI double over Canha’s head in center. Petit limited the damage, though, striking out Michael Brantley to end the frame.
Jed Lowrie socked his 14th homer of the season in the bottom of the frame eighth, ripping an 0-2 middle-middle fastball off the top of the scoreboard in right against reliever Zach McAllister.
“Games like that, it feels like a 10-run homer,” Melvin said. “They have some guys that are coming to the plate that get your attention in that last inning. It was paramount. It gives you a little bit of wiggle room.”
Blake Treinen allowed a hit and a walk in the ninth, but recorded his 21st save of the season — more than he’s ever had in a single campaign. He did it by striking out former A’s slugger Yonder Alonso and getting Jason Kipnis to fly out to center to end the game.
Coming off an 8-2 road trip, the A’s have now won 11 of their last 13, their best 13-game stretch since winning 11 of 13 from May 7, 2014 to May 22, 2014.
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