The newest member of the San Francisco Giants is 2011 16th round pick Clayton Blackburn. On Thursday, the Oklahoma area high-school product was recalled and sent to Phoenix, Ariz. where the Giants are beginning a four-game set with the Diamondbacks, while Jarrett Parker was optioned to Sacramento. The move brings the bullpen back to 13 pitchers, and though Blackburn is a starting pitcher, he'll allow Bruce Bochy to give some tired arms a rest if needed.
Bochy on Blackburn: "We need the coverage. ... You hope nothing happens (with pitching). If it does, he could go 100 pitches."— John Shea (@JohnSheaHey) May 12, 2016
Blackburn's numbers haven't been as stellar as his Pacific Coast League-leading ERA proved a year ago, but according to Blackburn and his coaches, they're not worried about that. Blackburn spoke with me on Monday, just three days before his first call-up to the big leagues, to discuss a new pitch, the movement on his two-seam fastball, and his excitement about two roommates getting to the majors before him.
GP: Last time we chatted was when you were with the San Jose Giants in 2013. Certainly you've progressed as a pitcher since then. In what ways has it been obvious to you that you've improved?
"More than anything, just being consistent. As I've gotten older, I've prepared my body a little better to repeat my mechanics. I've developed a slider since then, and that's something I've been able to use to ride out some games when something else isn't working. I think overall, the mental and physical aspect of pitching I've improved on since 2013."
GP: When I spoke to you three years ago, you were working on adding a cutter to your arsenal. Do you still throw a cutter or did that evolve into the slider?
"The cutter kind of evolved into the slider. It was just one of those things where if I threw it too hard, it was straight, and if I didn't throw it hard enough, it was a slider. So I just rolled with it and started throwing a slider."
GP: That's what's interesting about a cutter, isn't it?
"It's a tough pitch, especially being a sinker guy. I turn the ball in when I throw, and to throw a cutter you have to start on the outside of the ball. It's just something that is hard to do; to be able to sink it and cut it."
GP: Other than that, you're still throwing the same group of pitches?
"Yeah I throw a two-seam fastball, a 12-6 curve, a circle-changeup, and now the slider."
GP: You're feeling pretty good about the slider at this point?
"Yeah I threw it yesterday and was able to throw it front door, back door. As I've gotten a little more comfortable with it, I've been able to command it a lot better. It's been a good pitch."
GP: Last year you led the Pacific Coast League in ERA. That must've been a pretty consistent season for you. What would you say was your biggest key in 2015?
"I got here around this time last year because I had struggled with some shoulder tightness in spring training. I missed April and was rehabbing down in Arizona. I'd say around late June or early July I had a stretch where I found my mechanics and everything started to come together. Early on, I was maybe good with a pitch or two, but I wasn't consistent. Right around July my pitching coach and I worked on some things and it finally clicked. I just got on a roll and stuck with it."
GP: This season hasn't been quite as good as last year. Has there been anything in particular that has been biting at you?
"It's just one of those things where I've been really inconsistent. I know that, they know that. Numbers aren't something that I'm looking at at this point and I don't think they are either. My stuff has been there. Every outing I'll show flashes of being pretty good and then I'll just let one inning get away from me. So it's just one of those things where I've got to find it and repeat it and get on a roll."
GP: You're on the 40-man roster, so you were in big league camp this spring training. Was it fun working with some of the right-handed starters?
"Absolutely. We've got some of the best pitchers in baseball up there. Samardzija, Cueto, Bumgarner. Cain and Peavy are struggling a little bit but they've shown that they can be absolutely fantastic. They're great to work with. They're professionals and they come in and get their work done but they know how to have a good time. That's something I've got to learn from those guys. Just being around them every day was a dream come true. As a little kid, I grew up watching Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. And then watching Bumgarner on TV do what he did in the playoffs, as a kid I never thought I'd be in a position like this. I'm very thankful for it, but at the same time I want to show these guys that I can compete at that level, too, and that's one thing I've tried to do this year. I had a pretty good spring besides maybe an outing or two, but other than that I think I showed that when the time comes and they need me, I can pitch at that level."
GP: Was there any guy in particular that you could relate to most in terms of your style of pitching?
"I think Matt Cain more than anything. I've been around him the most. He's just one of those guys who has always been good to me. Helping me out with little things here and there, and he's also not afraid to ask me on some things. He's working on a sinker here at the back end of his career where he's trying to get the ball to move a little bit, so we've worked on some sinker stuff. When Cain is good, and he will be good again, he's shown signs of being great. When he gets the sinker, he's going to be getting ground balls and doing the same kind of thing [as me]. He's got the sinker and he's coming off a tough last year, and once he gets going, the guy can be unhittable."
GP: Tell me about your two-seamer. Some pitchers get fade running away arm side and others, like you, get sink. What makes your two-seam have sink?
"More than anything, it's just natural. Sinker is more of a natural thing. It's tough to learn a sinker because it's just the way you throw the ball. At the end of the pitch, all sinkerballers pronate the ball a lot. Some guys just can't do that. It's just not how they grew up throwing. Guys who try to learn a sinker, it starts off as a side-to-side thing and then as they get comfortable with it, they can get it to sink a little bit. Some days I get side-to-side just because I'm not finishing. Or sometimes it's the air if we're in Arizona or Colorado. It's a feel pitch, and sometimes it's hard to feel so when you don't have the feel for it, man, it's not fun."
GP: Being in the Pacific Coast League, you play in places like Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, and Salt Lake City. All these places where the air is thin. That must be tough for you as a sinkerballer.
"Me and [Chris] Heston were sitting eating lunch one day after a game in Salt Lake City, and we were looking at the top-five highest altitudes in baseball and Albuquerque, Reno, Salt Lake are all there. Coors Field is the only big league one and we start there two times a year. But I'm here to get my work in and my goal is to get to the big leagues and show them that I'm ready. So my ultimate goal is pounding the zone down because there are outings in the big leagues where you don't have good stuff so you've got to get guys out somehow. Just being able to get outs and go deep into games, that's what I try to do every day. Worrying about the air is something I try not to do."
GP: When they were called up, Derek Law and Mac Williamson left your house that you three lease. How is it now?
"It's lonely, [laughs]. No, any time your friends get called up, especially good friends, it's special. Especially Derek with it being his first time. Seeing the look on his face when he came into the room and told us he was called up was awesome. Obviously a little bittersweet, but definitely excited for those guys."
GP: I was just talking with Jose Casilla about the "Dog Pound" bullpen in San Jose back in 2013. How cool is it to see Law, Strickland, and Osich up in the bigs?
"We still talk about that bullpen. For an A-ball bullpen, that wasn't fair. I felt bad for anybody they had to face. Us starters knew that if we had the lead in the sixth, we were getting a win that day. Seeing those guys still together and still dominating, just like they did in A-ball. Those are some of the best arms I've seen in professional baseball, just with stuff. It's no surprise to me that they're there doing so well."
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