Oakland A's

How strong spring outings from A’s pitchers will heat up starting rotation battle

A’s pitcher Paul Blackburn throws against the Seattle Mariners during spring training Thursday in Mesa, Ariz.
A’s pitcher Paul Blackburn throws against the Seattle Mariners during spring training Thursday in Mesa, Ariz. The Seattle Times via AP

Paul Blackburn kept the line moving.

The way the A’s starting rotation battle has been going recently nobody wants to be the one to mess things up.

Blackburn had a tough act to follow after fellow rotation hopeful Aaron Brooks tossed four scoreless innings the day before but he did a nice job in making his own case with three shutout innings in Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Cleveland Indians.

While the end result was positive, Blackburn admitted to not feeling quite as sharp as he did in his previous outing. The right-hander struck out three batters over two innings last week, he had one strikeout Saturday. But Blackburn did not walk a batter in either.

“I wouldn’t say it was my best feeling one,” Blackburn said. “A lot of balls I was trying to throw glove-side went up and in against righties. I can’t complain about the results, but I felt my previous one was a little better.”

Blackburn did not think it was his best performance, but A’s manager Bob Melvin did. Not just his best performance of the spring, but the best he’s pitched since his successful rookie season in Oakland.

“By far the best he’s looked this spring,” Melvin said. “Good life in his arm and had a great breaking ball. He looked like when we’ve seen him pitch really well in Oakland. This is a different guy for me.”

Saturday’s outing now makes it five shutout innings for Blackburn this spring. He’s in the mix with names like Brooks, Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and top prospect Jesús Luzardo for the final slot in the A’s starting rotation. But he’s not thinking about it too much because that’s when he could possibly slip up.

“Just go out there and have fun,” Blackburn said. “I know there’s a ton of guys fighting for spots. That’s kind of the big question mark in camp. But I just want to go have fun and work on stuff, continue to get better.”

It’s a rotation battle that Melvin believes will make Blackburn and the rest of the candidates better as they compete for a spot he said is still pretty wide open with two weeks left until the A’s leave for their two regular season games in Japan.

“You want competition,” Melvin said. “It shows these guys have to perform and adds to spring training. It can sometimes be mundane, but not when all these guys are fighting for something.

“Everybody is starting to pitch a lot better. They just look more in sync. The rhythm is there and their mechanics look good. It’s fun to watch.”

Montas took the baton from Blackburn and kept the good performances rolling.

The right-hander finished off the game with three shutout innings of his own as he allowed just two hits and struck out two batters.

Though Montas is vying for a spot in the rotation, a spot in the bullpen could also be an option. He’s done it before and would be a good fit given his high-velocity fastball. That pitch along with his newly-learned splitter could make him even more of a weapon as a reliever.

Out of minor league options, Montas’ performance this spring will dictate whether he has a future with Oakland or has to go somewhere else.

“He’s impressed us this camp,” Melvin said. “He is in shape. He looks really committed this year, for obvious reasons, but at some point in time, he’d like to get a real chance at the big league level. I don’t think he really cares if it’s as a reliever or starter.”