Clayton Blackburn could not have picked a better time to return to the mound.
Making his first start for Double-A Richmond since May 19, the Giants' No. 8 prospect delivered five strong innings in the Flying Squirrels' 2-0 win over Reading in the nightcap of Friday's doubleheader.
On America's birthday, 9,560 fans filled The Diamond and they were likely in high spirits before Blackburn's outing even began. That's because Kelvin Marte hurled a three-hitter in the opener as Richmond posted a 1-0 victory.
"I felt pretty good," Blackburn said. "It's good to be back, good to be back in Richmond and pitching in front of these fans. [With it being] July 4th, I was pretty excited when I found out I was pitching tonight. You knew there were going to be a lot of fans here.
"It felt good to be back out here and competing again."
The 2011 16th-round pick yielded only two hits, a double to Kelly Dugan in the first inning and a single to Brock Stassi to start the second. He struck out four and walked one, using 68 pitches.
An injury in his rib area interrupted Blackburn's fourth season. Before Friday, he made two rehab starts in the Rookie-level Arizona League, allowing two runs in two innings on June 24 and turning in three hitless innings on June 29.
"Today was the first time I really got back into live competition," Blackburn said. "It was one of those things where I wasn't scared to let go, but at the same time I was being cautious, being smart about it. The ball came out pretty well. ... I was able to keep the ball down and get ground balls. That's what I'm trying to do."
Through nine Eastern League starts, he owns a 3-5 record and 3.04 ERA, with 36 strikeouts against 10 walks across 47 1/3 innings.
His latest effort was supported by a solo homer from Devin Harris in the second and an RBI single by Kelby Tomlinson in the third. Tomlinson's hit plated Tyler Graham, who delivered a ground-rule double.
Relievers Josh Osich and Hunter Strickland got the hold and save, respectively, after each pitched a scoreless frame to preserve the Flying Squirrels' fifth shutout of the season and second of the day.
No bullpen help was required in Game 1, when Marte recorded the first complete game and shutout of his career. The 26-year-old southpaw struck out four batters and walked one, improving to 7-3 and lowering his ERA to 3.78.
"Kelvin's been good for us all year," Blackburn said of Marte, who got the run he needed when Harris drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth. "An outing like that doesn't surprise me. He always gets deep into games. He gives us a chance to win basically every time he goes out there. So for him to do that, it doesn't surprise me. He's got good stuff and locates it well. That's what makes him so good."
Though Blackburn did not quite meet the bar set by Marte, it would have been tough to be upset about the performance, in which he yielded his lowest hit total of the season.
"I was just trying to go out there and give the team a chance to win, whether it be a shutout or one or two runs," he said. "But ultimately, it worked out well for both of us. He pitched well. I came back and pitched well on top of that. Osich and Strickland both came in and threw shutout innings, and that was huge. It's just good to get a doubleheader sweep on the Fourth of July. That makes it really cool."
As if Independence Day didn't provide enough reason to celebrate, the sweep boosted Richmond's record to 52-35, establishing a high-water mark in franchise history.
Adam Loewen (0-2) and Colton Murray (0-3) were the hard-luck losers for Reading. The former gave up two hits over six innings in the opener, while the latter allowed three hits over 2 1/3 innings.