The words "consistent" and "pitcher" are rarely used in tandem when it comes to the Pacific Coast League. This is particularly true in the PCL's Pacific Conference, where the ballparks are smaller, the air is thinner, the humidity is lower, and consequently, the outs are tougher to get.
So what Paul Blackburn has done this season is nothing short of remarkable. In 17 games (16 starts), the Aviators' right-hander is 7-2 with a 4.66 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and a stellar 69-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Even more impressive, as the dog days of summer have hit, Blackburn has gotten even better. In fact, over his last four outings, the Aviators' leader in victories allowed just eight earned runs, 19 hits and four walks over 20 innings (3.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP), going six innings in two of those contests and seven in the other two.
His most recent start Tuesday in Tacoma was the best of the bunch, as Blackburn held the Rainiers to five hits and a walk while striking out five in seven scoreless innings. Although Las Vegas fell 2-0 to Tacoma, Blackburn certainly gave his team a chance to win, something he's done consistently all season.
It's the main reason the 25-year-old native of Antioch, California, was voted to represent the PCL in the Triple-A All-Star game. While Blackburn didn't attend the game earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, it was for good reason: A few days before the All-Star break, the Oakland A's - for whom the Aviators are the top minor-league affiliate - briefly called him up because they needed pitcher on hand in case of emergency during a series in Seattle.
Ultimately, Blackburn didn't see any action against the Mariners, but it's clear the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is highly regarded within the A's organization. Including a spot start in June in the opener of a doubleheader in Texas, Blackburn has started 17 games for the A's over the past three seasons, going 5-5 with a 4.84 ERA. Given the way he's performed this season in Triple-A, especially in hitter-friendly Las Vegas Ballpark, there's little doubt another big-league promotion is around the corner.
We recently caught up with Blackburn to learn more about how to succeed in a league where most pitchers fail, what it's like to pitch in front of a packed house at Las Vegas Ballpark, and the one teammate with whom he would rather not match wits.
You were one of 14 pitchers selected to represent the PCL in the Triple-A All-Star game. What did that mean to you?
It was exciting. You try and pitch your best throughout the entire year, and these are just kind of the rewards along the way. I couldn't have done it without everyone else here, though. My teammates have to make plays behind me, and the coaching staff has been great. [Aviators pitching coach] Rick Rodriquez has helped me a lot. It's just a team effort all the way around, even though I happened to be the one who got acknowledged for it.
Is it a little extra special making an All-Star team when you have to pitch in a league and a ballpark that favor hitters much more than pitchers?
It's definitely tough [to pitch in the PCL], but it's more mentally tough than anything. You go out there and think you've pitched well, then you look up and see you've given up six or seven runs. And when a couple of those types of outings happen in a row, you start searching. And that's kind of where I was earlier this season.
How long did it take you to realize that Las Vegas Ballpark was going to be a tough place to pitch?
Oh, the first day when we took batting practice. [Laughs.] Everyone knew - even being in Nashville the last two years - that the ball flies on this side [Pacific Conference] of the league. Then you get here, and the ballpark is great - it's awesome - but on the first day, guys taking batting practice were hitting the ball over the hockey rink [City National Arena beyond left field]. That's the first time I thought to myself, "Well, you better keep the ball down!" But it's been a good time, I'm having a lot of fun here - great group of guys. So, yeah, it can be a difficult place to pitch, but everything else about it is great.
What are the keys to pitching successfully in this ballpark and in this league?
You have to be aggressive, keep the ball down and not be predictable. It's a tough league all the way around. All of these lineups are good. It seems like every time you turn around, you're facing a lineup where everyone is hitting .320, .330. We have seven or eight guys on our team hitting over .300. So you just have to attack, keep the ball down, keep them off-balance, make your pitches and just understand that this is a league where you're going to get hit. The goal is to limit the damage as much as you can.
You've played in front of a lot of big crowds at home this season, which isn't something you consistently see at this level of baseball. What's that been like?
It's been awesome. There's 8,000-10,000 every night. You don't see that anywhere else. Even on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when it's usually slow, there are still 8,000-9,000 people here. It's incredible, and the fans have been great. When we get a hit or score a run or get a big out and the crowd cheers, it's a lot different than playing in front of maybe 2,000 fans and it sounds like a golf clap - especially when maybe 500 are rooting for the other team to win. But here, when 7 o'clock comes around, the atmosphere is like no other in this league.
How does this Aviators team compare to others you've been on in terms of camaraderie?
It's good. We have some funny guys, we have some quiet guys, but everyone's loose and we all like each other. We don't have conflict, and we don't have guys rooting against each other. Everyone's pulling for the next guy. We're all just out here trying to win and trying to get better.
Who's the funniest guy in the clubhouse?
[Outfielder] Nick Martini, by far. I don't know, he's just quick on his feet - he's got these little one-liners he throws out there. He's fun.
Who's the one guy on the team you wouldn't want to get in a trivia contest with?
I would stay [relief pitcher Kyle] Lobstein. Just the way he handles himself, and he's very, very bright - I don't think I'd stand a chance against him.
Who was your favorite pitcher growing up?
Jason Schmidt from the Giants. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my dad and I went to a Giants game and I think Schmidt threw a complete-game shutout. I just remember it was fun to watch. Also, John Lackey. When I was growing up, Lackey was pitching in Anaheim [for the Angels], and he was such a bulldog out there. Just watching him pitch - he was intense, had confidence in himself and [believed] nobody was going to beat him. That's how I try to be out there.
What's the story behind the beard?
I always had a little beard - nothing this big - but in 2017 when I got called up to the A's, all the starting pitchers were having a beard-growing contest. Then Sonny Gray got traded to the Yankees (who have a no-facial-hair policy), so he lost. But the rules were that you couldn't touch it - you couldn't clean it up, couldn't shave your neck, nothing. We ended up having some good ones and some nasty ones. So after the contest, I just cleaned it up a little bit but otherwise let it go, and it just kind of stuck.
There are several players on this team with intense beards, most notably your fellow pitcher, Brian Schlitter, who's now with Oakland. Would you say his is unbeatable?
Oh, I think mine's better than Schlitter's. [Laughs.] I think I've got the winner!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.