WEST SACRAMENTO, CA. - The Pacific Coast League has long been known as a "hitter's league;" high altitudes and dry climates combine to create atmospheres in which baseballs jump off bats a little bit quicker and scream through the air a little bit louder and farther.
But even if the PCL is a hitter's league, Clayton Blackburn didn't seem to notice.
The Triple-A rookie posted a 2.85 ERA - the best in the Pacific Coast League - with a 10-4 record in 23 games. His 123.0 innings pitched gave him just enough (115.2 innings pitched is the minimum) to qualify, but it took until game 143 for Blackburn to solidify his place atop the league's pitching and ERA leaders.
He entered his final start of the season with a 3.03 ERA, just 0.04 points behind league leader Carlos Pimentel (IOWA). Pimentel pitched earlier that same day, throwing five innings of one-run ball to lower his ERA from 2.99 to 2.95 and add a little more separation between the two aces. But Blackburn's seven shutout innings against the Albuquerque Isotopes were more than enough, dropping his ERA 18 points to 2.85.
Even still, in that last start of his season, his ERA wasn't on his mind.
"It's not something I really looked at," Blackburn explained of the ERA title. "You know, missing the first month of the season I didn't really even think about it too much because you've got to qualify for a certain number of innings. I didn't even know about it until I heard the Omaha announcer mention it while we were there in late August. And then again when someone mentioned it after my last start."
The fact that Blackburn achieved the feat in his first year at Triple-A makes it even more impressive. Pitching in the PCL is no easy task (a quick look at the top ten ERAs among starters, four of which are above 4.00, is all it takes to see that) but Blackburn, who came into the league from the much more pitcher-friendly Eastern League, made the transition seem incredibly smooth.
"There's a big jump from the Eastern League to the PCL. It's definitely a hitter's league and you absolutely notice it," he said of making the transition from Double-A to Triple-A. "We play in places like Albuquerque and Reno and Colorado Springs and the ball just travels more.
"In Richmond (San Francisco's Double-A affiliate), the ball just doesn't seem to travel the same way. The air is thicker out there, for one, way more humid, so the ball doesn't carry as well. And you can get your pitches to move more, too. But even more than that, the hitters here seem to be better, more experienced hitters. They put better swings on the ball, don't go out of the zone as often. They really make you work to get them out."
Blackburn did work, having to play catch up after starting the season a month late due to a sore shoulder. It was an up-and-down start for the right-hander, who went 2-3 with a 4.50 ERA in his first seven starts.
"Early on, it was a lot about repeating my mechanics, making sure that everything stayed going toward home plate. That was one thing that (pitching coach) Dwight preached to me all year. My direction to home plate, staying on my pitches, and being able to repeat my mechanics. That's what I was focused on early in the season."
It was after those seven starts that San Francisco Giants starter Matt Cain arrived in Sacramento for his first rehab assignment and Blackburn was bumped to the bullpen. He made three appearances out of the pen, throwing 6.2 innings while allowing two runs and striking out eight. When Cain wrapped up his time with the River Cats, Blackburn was plugged back into the rotation and put together an excellent second half of the season.
"I think it was just more of a coincidental thing," Blackburn said of his success after being in the pen. "That was right when I started getting my feel back for my pitches and my mechanics were feeling more and more repeatable. I wouldn't say there was anything specific about being in the bullpen had to do with that success. It was just a timing thing, where everything started coming together."
In his 13 games after rejoining the rotation, Blackburn went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA. He struck out 61 in 78.1 innings of work while walking 17. That second half of his season included a stretch where Blackburn won five straight starts and allowed just six earned runs in 30+ innings. He didn't take a loss between May 25 and August 26 and pitched his way from a 4.23 ERA to the league's best 2.85 to end the season.
Altogether, it makes for one of the best seasons of Blackburn's young career, despite his first in the most notorious hitter's league he's ever pitched in.
But maybe being in such a hitter-friendly environment isn't actually the worst of things for Blackburn. In addition to taking home the Pacific Coast League's ERA title, he also hit .296 and slugged his first professional home run.
"Yeah, the stars kind of aligned for that one, you know. He threw a fastball down and in and I think that might have been as hard as I can hit a ball." To Blackburn's memory, the home run was his first since his "senior year of high school."
First professional home run in his first season in the PCL. Coincidence?
Coincidence or not, Blackburn's pitching lines don't lie, and the right-hander jumped into Triple-A and the PCL with barely a hitch. Now, with a clean bill of health, it's time to rest before gearing up for next season.
"I'm going into the offseason completely healthy and that's something I want to build on. After dealing with some injuries last offseason, it'll just be good to be home for a bit before we ramp back up again. I'll definitely be looking to take this past season and my health into next year."
The Sacramento River Cats are the Triple-A affiliate of the 2014 World Champion San Francisco Giants. The team plays at Raley Field in West Sacramento, consistently voted one of the top ballparks in America. River Cats Season Tickets, Mini-Plans, and Flex Plans can be purchased for the 2015 season by calling the River Cats Ticket Hotline at (916) 371-HITS (4487). For more information about the River Cats, visit www.rivercats.com. For information on other events at Raley Field, visit www.raleyfield.com.