No one would have criticized Matt Blackham at any point over the past decade if the right-handed pitcher had decided to give up baseball.
Early in his high school career in Utah, Blackham underwent a pair of arm surgeries after a growth plate in his elbow popped out. A similar scenario unfolded in the early stages of pro ball when he underwent the knife two more times due to elbow problems. Yet, despite going 20 months without pitching in a regular-season contest, Blackham's perseverance has paid impressive dividends over the course of the 2017 campaign for the Columbia Fireflies.
Through games of Aug. 30, Blackham owned a 4-2 record with a 1.46 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and seven saves in nine opportunities. He's struck out 80 batters in 55 2/3 innings, an average of 12.93 per nine frames, and limited opponents to .186 batting average. He also hasn't allowed an earned run since June 27 and has surrendered runs of any type in only seven of his 39 appearances all season.
"I feel great about the way the season has gone," Blackham said. "I didn't expect these kinds of results, and I couldn't have done it without all of the help of my coaches, [manager] Jose Leger and [pitching coach] Jonathan Hurst and trainer Tanner Miracle and so many other people. I wouldn't be doing as well right now if it wasn't for all of the people who have helped me get to this point."
Having graduated from Olathe Northwest High School in 2011 after his family moved to Kansas for his senior year, Blackham pitched two seasons at Johnson County Community College, where the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder struck out 85 batters in 52 innings as a sophomore. He then led all Middle Tennessee State relievers with 49 strikeouts and limited opponents to a .239 average as a junior before the New York Mets drafted him in the 29th round.
Blackham proceeded to post a 2-0 record with a 1.42 ERA in 11 relief outings at Rookie-level Kingsport in 2014 before moving up to Class A Brooklyn the following summer. In his New York-Penn League debut, he held Tri-City to three hits over seven shutout innings. Two outings later he surrendered only two hits to Williamsport in seven scoreless frames to improve to 2-0 with a 1.45 ERA.
Yet just as Blackham was beginning to establish himself in the Mets' organization, it was determined he needed ulnar nerve transposition in his pitching elbow, which sidelined him following his July 22 start at West Virginia. Upon his return to the mound in Spring Training in 2016, he suffered an olecranon fracture that required a screw to be inserted in his elbow. That procedure sidelined Blackham for seven months before he could begin light throwing.
By the time Blackham reported to Port St. Lucie for Spring Training earlier this year, more than 18 months had passed since he was last able to take the mound for any length of time. As difficult as the physical aspects of his recovery had been, the pitcher admits the mental part was equally challenging.
"In all honesty I wish I had an extra month before I went to Spring Training, but I just had to trust the process and everyone around me that they could help me get to where I wanted to be," Blackham said. "It was scary going out there at the beginning of the season. It was a slow process, just learning how to start over and how to do everything again.
"I felt good when I got [to Columbia], and I just wanted to get the first outing over with. Still, you never know what's going to happen. As the season has gone along, I've gotten better at pitching again instead of just throwing. I have more confidence and more maturity and a better understanding of the game, which has made things easier and easier as the season has gone on."
Blackham's best pitches are his fastball with excellent movement and a knuckle-curve, and he mixes in a solid changeup that led to much of his success earlier this season. He entered the current campaign possessing more confidence in his fastball to get strikeouts but has learned to use all his offerings at any time in the count due to his improved command thanks to some visualization work with Hurst.
Not surprisingly, Blackham says the key to future success centers on staying healthy. As soon as the SAL campaign concludes Monday, all his efforts will focus on building strength while recovering from his first full season of professional baseball. Considering the path he has traveled to get to this point, Blackham feels he is finally ready to add to the foundation and put everything he has learned to use to reach his full potential.
"My off-season goal is to get my lower half a little bit stronger so if they need me to throw more innings, I'll be more durable and able to do that," Blackham said. "The past two off-seasons I've been doing more physical therapy as opposed to strengthening work. This will be my first off-season where I can get stronger instead of playing catch up. I'm looking forward to it to see what I can accomplish."
Hit machine: Asheville corner infielder Tyler Nevin is going out with a bang in 2017. The reigning SAL Player of the Week has hit safely in nine straight games as well as 12 of his last 13 outings. In his last 11 contests, the son of former big leaguer Phil Nevin is 25-for-45 (.555) with seven doubles, three triples, a home run and 11 RBIs.
Kudos for Nelson: Greensboro third baseman James Nelson, who was named to the year-end SAL All-Star team earlier this week, is trying to add a batting title to his accomplishments. Nelson entered Thursday's games leading the league with a .310 average, two points higher than second-place Emmanuel Rivera of Lexington. Nelson will go down in the record book as having the circuit's longest hitting streak of 2017 at 24 games, seven longer than his closest challenger.
Gunning 'em down: Meibrys Viloria has made running difficult against the Lexington Legends when he's been behind the plate. The Colombian receiver has nailed 45 of 112 would-be base stealers, good for a league-high 40.2 percent. A distant second is Greenville's Roldani Baldwin, who has thrown out 40 of 121 for a solid 33.1 percentage.