Giants right-hander Clayton Blackburn turned in one of the finest starts of his young professional career Tuesday. But what started out as a potentially historic afternoon ultimately became the latest in a string of strong performances.
Blackburn took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out nine batters in the Class A Augusta GreenJackets' 2-1 win over the Lexington Legends.
The final line on San Francisco's No. 11 prospect read two hits and a walk over 6 2/3 frames. He fanned at least one Legends hitter in every inning except the sixth and hit one batter.
He fell one out shy of matching his longest start and one strikeout short of tying a personal best. He threw 101 pitches, the upper end of his limit, but did not factor in the decision after the bullpen squandered a late 1-0 lead and forced extra innings.
"I thought I pitched pretty well," Blackburn said. "I had a good sinker and a good breaking ball and I mixed it up. But I would have to say it wasn't [my best start]. I would have to put it up there in my top two, but behind my last game in Rome. I was still very satisfied."
Blackburn retired 20 of the first 21 hitters he faced, the only baserunner being Mike Kvasnicka, who drew a leadoff walk to begin the third inning.
But the 6-foot-3 Texas native lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the seventh when third baseman Matt Duffy laced a double to right field.
"I got the first two out and I was feeling very good," said Blackburn, who threw a no-hitter for his high school travel ball team two days before signing with the Giants last summer. "I tried to throw an inside fastball on Duffy's hands, but he hit it on the perfect spot down the line. It was just under the first baseman's glove.
"From about the third inning on, I thought it would be cool to throw a no-hitter, but by the fifth, I had forgotten about it. It makes you tentative on the mound."
Right fielder Chris Epps then beat out an infield single to put runners at the corners and left fielder Brandon Meredith was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Steven Neff replaced Blackburn, and he induced a ground ball off the bat off Kvasnicka to end the threat and keep the shutout alive.
Neff's inning-ending ground ball was just one of the defensive plays that helped Blackburn put up zeros.
"My defense was very good again," he added. "We've had eight games without an error now, which is a Sally League record. This team has a lot of players who play hard for you. It gives you a lot of confidence.
"There was a ball in between the gap that center fielder [Jesus] Galindo tracked down and made a great play on. And there was another ball hit to the wall that was pretty scary. I had really good defense behind me. Neff gave up a home run, but he really picked me up in the seventh inning."
The GreenJackets led through 7 2/3 innings, but Houston's No. 8 prospect Delino DeShields took Neff deep to left field to break up the shutout and cost Blackburn his second win of the year.
"I played against Delino in high school," Blackburn said. "I faced his travel ball team as a kid and through Little League, then we met up again in pro ball. I've known him almost my whole life. He's doing well and he's a great player -- lots of tools."
Selected by the Giants in the 16th round of last June's Draft, Blackburn is 4-3 in 21 career games in the Minors. He has allowed five runs in his last 24 2/3 innings, striking out 33 batters over that four-game stretch. Tuesday's outing lowered his South Atlantic League ERA to 3.63.
He went 3-1 with a 1.08 ERA in 12 appearances -- including six starts -- in the Arizona League last season, where he had a 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With the exception of his final start of last season, Blackburn allowed just one earned in 28 1/3 innings.
On Tuesday, Neff (1-1) allowed three hits and two walks while striking out two batters over 3 1/3 innings and Keith Bilodeau worked around a pair of walks to earn his first save.
Lexington starter Michael Foltynewicz yielded a run on five hits and a walk over seven innings. He fanned five batters and did not factor in the decision. Murilo Gouvea (1-2) pitched a scoreless 10th inning of relief before surrendering a two-out homer to Mark Minicozzi in the 11th.