MESA, Ariz. — Paul Blackburn has faced a lot of adversity since joining the Oakland A’s in 2017, a series of trials that have lended the 29-year-old right-handed pitcher perspective throughout his six big-league seasons.
He dealt with injuries in his right elbow and forearm that held him out for most of 2018, posted career-worst numbers in 2019, spending most of the season in Triple-A, only to struggle more. Two years later, the Heritage High produce was designated for assignment after throwing just 2.1 innings during the truncated 2020 season. And even after being selected as Oakland’s lone All-Star last season amid the best year of his career, Blackburn’s season was cut short once again after tearing his flexor tendon sheath in his right middle finger in August.
But instead of falling into the “dark places” that his previous setbacks led him to, Blackburn has found light at the end of the tunnel with his most recent injury. His rehab has progressed ahead of schedule, culminating in his first appearance since the injury Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas against the Reds.
“I know a lot of times you come back from injury and there’s kind of that mental block you got like, ‘Man I hope this doesn’t happen, I hope I don’t feel it,’” Blackburn said Friday. “I never had that. I feel like that’s a step in the right direction when you’re coming back from injury.”
Entering spring training, A’s manager Mark Kotsay was optimistic about the status of Blackburn and fellow right-hander James Kaprielian, who received offseason shoulder surgery on his AC joint. Both have thrown off a mound and against hitters a number of times already this spring, but Blackburn will be first to start a game during camp.
And the right-hander couldn’t be more pleased with where he’s at.
“I feel like it’s been a very long time since I’ve been out there and just been able to compete,” Blackburn said. “Everything bodywise feels really good right now. I feel like I’m kind of ahead of where I thought I’d be as far as how I’m feeling and just the amount of confidence I have with what I dealt with last year.”
In 21 starts last season, Blackburn posted a 4.28 earned run average across 111.1 innings pitched with 89 strikeouts and a mere 30 walks. His performance took a drastic dip during the second half after he recorded a sterling 3.62 ERA in 97.0 innings in the first half en route to his first All-Star game appearance.
Blackburn started just three games in the second half, though, allowing 14 earned runs in as many innings of work before his injury.
Blackburn is looking to return to Oakland’s rotation at full health ahead of Opening Day as the group’s most-experienced arm. No player on the staff has started more games with the A’s than Blackburn (48).
His career 5.09 ERA during that span shows that he’s had plenty of struggles, but the Bay Area native has still found ways to learn from those hardships. He referenced how difficult such experiences were early in his career, when spring training was an opportunity to prove his worth as opposed to preparing for a season.
“There were times I’d go out, especially early in spring, where I’d try and go out and be too perfect,” Blackburn said. “You’re trying to be someone you’re not. You see that a lot in the first week, you see guys going out there and they’re trying way too hard or overthrowing. You’re just trying to make such a good impression early when you’re not being yourself and what’s gotten you here.”
He dealt with similar issues in his sophomore season, when he spent most of the campaign on the injured list with a strained right forearm and, later, right-elbow lateral epicondylitis. When Blackburn did pitch in 2018, albeit in six games, he posted a glaring 7.16 ERA in six starts. He found himself fighting a mental battle that any injured player who desires to help his team does.
But that didn’t appear to be the case with his most recent injury. Not at all.
“Dating back to 2018, I kind of dealt with being hurt on the roster as well,” Blackburn said. “That was basically through the whole season. I found myself in those dark kind of down times. I feel like with this one, it happened at the end of the year and, yeah, it sucked the last six weeks not being able to go out there and compete.
“But then going into the offseason I was able to have a routine and kind of look forward to spring training and I’m not sitting there watching 160 games from the dugout not being able to help the team win. It was just a little different, I didn’t really have any of those down times or dark places with this injury.”
Blackburn has since used those experiences as lessons that he has shared with some of the A’s younger pitchers, including Hogan Harris, a 26-year-old lefty who has hardly played above Single-A to this point in his career, but has a chance to help the A’s rotation this season. Harris gave up two runs and only recorded two outs in his first outing of the spring against the Angels, walking four batters.
Blackburn was there to share some needed advice.
“I told him kind of what I just reiterated, ‘Look man, I know you want to impress, but just know yourself and what got you here,’” Blackburn said. “That’s the biggest thing, really. If you’re able to kind of just stay within yourself and just be able to be as calm as you can when you get out there and do what you can do, a lot of times that’s when the game doesn’t seem to speed up on you.”
On Sunday, Blackburn will have his turn on the mound, his first in 212 days. It’s a breakthrough that has come sooner than expected for the A’s and Blackburn, but one he’s worked hard to see through.
“I couldn’t be more happy with where I’m at right now,” Blackburn said.