Hitters, take note: Paul Blackburn is not afraid.
Boise's 19-year-old right-hander is off to a rock-solid start this season, and to him, it's a result of his steady approach on the mound. There aren't any crazy superstitions or repetitive routines. Instead, it's all about consistency and a single, recurring mantra: no fear.
That confidence is already showing in the box score. In three starts this season, a span of 15 innings, Blackburn has yet to allow an earned run while scattering eight hits and two walks. His 20 strikeouts, 0.67 WHIP and 0.00 ERA lead the Northwest League and helped him earn Pitcher of the Week honors for the week ending June 24.
With numbers like that, why should he be afraid?
"If a guy hits you hard, you just have to let it go, because that happens in baseball," Blackburn said. "I don't care if it's the fourth hitter or the ninth hitter, you have to approach everyone like they're the best hitter out there. Don't give into them, and make them show that they can beat you on your pitch."
It's his mentality, coupled with extended time he's spent weight training, that has created a vast difference in the Cubs prospect. Last season he allowed 23 hits, including two homers, and seven walks in 20 2/3 innings with the AZL Cubs. Compare that to this season, where he's struck out seven more batters in five fewer innings, and it's clear Blackburn's potential continues to rise.
One big difference, he noted, comes directly from the weight room. A first-round pick in the 2012 Draft (56th overall) out of Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif., the 6-foot-8 righty weighed in at a modest 160 pounds. Having spent the last three months in extended spring training, he's put on about 30 pounds and wants to get to an even 200 before it's all said and done.
On top of that, Blackburn is never satisfied by simply "pitching well," as he puts it. There's a continuous drive for consistency and improvement, motivation rarely found in teenage athletes.
"If I go out and throw seven innings, allow one hit and walk a guy, it's a great outing, but I'm not as happy as I would be if I went out there, didn't give up a hit and didn't walk anyone," he said. "One of the biggest things to me is just finding a way to keep the team in the ballgame to get a win."
Hawks coach Gary Van Tol has been impressed with Blackburn's composure and attention to detail. Even when he's not pitching, he's studying the game and coming to an understanding of how quickly fortunes can change in baseball.
Though Blackburn is sure to allow an earned run soon, he's certainly set the bar high for himself.
"He goes right after guys, he's pitching to contact, and he's throwing inside," Van Tol said. "Paul has shown some veteran composure out there by going him after hitters with no fear."
As he continues the pursuit of his dream, Blackburn has made it clear that turning around is not an option. The would-be business major instead has his sights set on working in Chicago, but at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, as opposed to corporate America.
"Wrigley Field is a great atmosphere. … That's just a great feeling to know that in the future I could be there," he said. "I was going to see where business took me, but as of right now, I haven't really had to think about it."
Welcome to the league: The Hillsboro Hops earned their first franchise victory in their home opener in dominant fashion, defeating the Eugene Emeralds, 12-0.
Who's hot, who's not: Spokane outfielder Christopher Garia has three home runs in his last five games. … Boise outfielder Yasiel Balaguert has 10 RBIs in his last nine contests. … Eugene righty Justin Livengood has struck out 10 in his last 5 2/3 innings. … Spokane righty Josh McElwee has fanned 15 in his last six frames. … Eugene shortstop Chase Jensen has not recorded a hit in his last 22 at-bats. … Tri-City righty Shawn Stuart allowed four earned runs on two hits and two walks while only recording one out in his last two appearances.
He said it: "Young pitchers come in here very confident, because they've all made it on their high school teams or on their college teams. A lot of these kids, it's the first time they're going to go through any type of adversity. To be honest with you, we like to see them stumble a bit out of the block so they can be humbled so we can clear the air and get down to business." -- Boise skipper Gary Van Tol on pitchers having to adjust to professional baseball