Sacramento River Cats

Pitcher Clayton Blackburn on cusp of majors with solid River Cats season

Despite a late start to his first Triple-A season because of shoulder soreness in spring training, Clayton Blackburn is 9-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 22 games (19 starts) for the River Cats.
Despite a late start to his first Triple-A season because of shoulder soreness in spring training, Clayton Blackburn is 9-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 22 games (19 starts) for the River Cats. Courtesy of the River Cats

Clayton Blackburn couldn’t have done much more to earn the win he recorded on July 29. On the mound, the River Cats’ right-hander held the Las Vegas 51s scoreless for seven innings. In the third, Blackburn came up to bat against 51s pitcher Tyler Pill and launched a home run over the center-field wall at Raley Field that juts to 403 feet.

“Yeah, I hit it well,” Blackburn said Friday, suppressing a grin. “I’d faced the guy last year in the Eastern League and then this year, so we’re pretty familiar with each other. Nobody on base, he threw me a fastball down in the zone, and I just somehow connected with it.”

Blackburn said it was his first home run since high school summer ball, before the Giants selected him in the 16th round of the 2011 draft. It made for a Madison-Bumgarner-like outing for the native of Amarillo, Texas, who at 22 years old is one of the top starting pitching prospects in the Giants’ system. Blackburn is scheduled to make his final start of the season with the River Cats on Sunday against the Albuquerque Isotopes.

Despite a late start to his first Triple-A season because of shoulder soreness in spring training, Blackburn is 9-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 22 games (19 starts) for Sacramento. He’s scheduled to report to the Arizona Fall League after the River Cats’ season ends rather than join the Giants for a September debut. But in moments like that July 29 start, it’s easier to picture Blackburn joining Bumgarner in San Francisco’s rotation at some point.

The Giants are heading for an offseason that should find their rotation in flux. Bumgarner and Jake Peavy remain under contract for 2016, and the Giants likely will make a strong push to re-sign Mike Leake in free agency. But 40-year-old Tim Hudson is expected to retire, 38-year-old Ryan Vogelsong will be a free agent, and Tim Lincecum is headed for free agency while recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery.

Chris Heston has had a promising rookie season, and the Giants could explore the starters on the market this winter. But should next spring arrive with rotation spots still up for grabs, Blackburn figures to be in the competition – even if it’s not something he or the Giants say they’re thinking about now.

“If there was a job opening in spring training and I was able to get it, that’d be great,” Blackburn said Friday. “But I’m more focused on getting better here and doing what they want me to do here to be successful in the major leagues.

“The Giants obviously have a very good reputation of getting guys to the big leagues and being successful. You just kind of do what they need you to do and tell you to do, and from there it kind of just falls into place.”

The sore shoulder delayed Blackburn’s River Cats debut until May. He said it took a little while to regain the feel and command of his off-speed pitches – he also has worked on adding a slider to his repertoire – but “everything kind of smoothed out” over the past two months. In his last 10 starts, Blackburn is 6-1 with a 2.03 ERA.

After being drafted, Blackburn made a quick impression by posting a 1.08 ERA in 331/3 innings with 30 strikeouts and just three walks for the Giants’ Arizona rookie-league team. He has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5-to-1, although it’s 3-to-1 this year. Blackburn said that was a product of having to regain his command early in the season, along with learning that at times it’s better to work around the strike zone in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

River Cats pitching coach Dwight Bernard said Blackburn’s four-pitch repertoire offers “nothing that’s out of the ordinary. But he mixes them up, and he’s got a good idea about how to read the bats of opposing hitters.”

Bernard said his main focus with Blackburn early was on repeating the right-hander’s delivery to keep a consistent arm slot, and that Blackburn has improved in that area this season.

Bernard said he expects Blackburn to get “a good look” from the Giants next spring. As for whether Blackburn is ready to pitch in the majors, Bernard said: “I think he could go up there and not embarrass himself. They’ve got quality catchers up there that know the league, know the hitters. He would just have to execute, just like here.”

Regardless of where Blackburn begins next year, he’ll have a memento from his 2015 season in Sacramento. Blackburn said after he hit his first professional home run, former teammate Josh Osich, now in the Giants’ bullpen, retrieved the ball for him. Still, the pitcher said, even that wasn’t the highlight of the night.

“Home run was cool,” Blackburn said. “But I was more satisfied with the seven quality innings. That’s what you shoot for, every time.”

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