KANSAS CITY, MO. - The latest version of Nick Blackburn is back -- without a beard -- to prove he can bring reliability to a beleaguered Twins rotation.
Since we're on the subject of trimming things, Blackburn needed to trim his 8.10 ERA -- which he certainly did on Friday night against the Royals in a game the Twins eventually won 2-1 in 11 innings.
Blackburn's sinker showed more life than earlier in the season and his aim didn't let him down many times. He pitched into the seventh inning with a 1-0 lead behind Darin Mastroianni's second-inning home run.
Blackburn left the game in the seventh after giving up a single to Eric Hosmer and a two-out RBI double to Yuniesky Betancourt. But the Twins pulled the game out in the 11th against Kansas City closer Jonathan Broxton, when Joe Mauer doubled to left, lifting his batting average to .334, and Josh Willingham followed by driving him in with a single.
Glen Perkins pitched the bottom of the inning to earn his fifth save, surviving a leadoff double by Alcides Escobar as Casey Fien got his first major league victory. Escobar tried to score from third on a one-out grounder to second but was cut down by Alexi Casilla.
But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire couldn't forget Blackburn's effort. It was the third consecutive game a Twins starter pitched at least six innings.
"He made it look effortless," Gardenhire said. "That was something he had been working on. All of his pitches, good changeups, good sinkers and good sliders. That was a great performance, desperately needed by him -- for him and for our baseball team."
The only drawback for the Twins was that Trevor Plouffe left after jamming his right thumb while lining out in the seventh. He expected to miss at least one game.
The Twins will win on most days when Blackburn pitches like he did Friday, but the game was a little bit of a tester, as Mastroianni's homer was one of only five hits they had off Royals righthander Luke Hochevar.
Blackburn was just as effective. In 6 2/3 innings, he gave up one earned run on seven hits with no walks and two strikeouts. He pounded the strike zone, resulting in nine groundball outs. Of his 103 pitches on Friday, 78 were strikes.
"Just to go out there and attack the strike zone," Blackburn said. "I don't think I was in any three-ball counts tonight, and that was big. I had been walking a lot of guys lately, and to go out there and get some pretty early action indicates that there was pretty good movement [on my pitches]. I got a couple flyballs, but for the most part kept the ball on the ground."
Can Blackburn keep it up and salvage a season that once was promising?
He posted a 2.12 ERA in spring training and was ready for a big year but, in his second start, had to leave because of cramps in his shoulder.
During an April 30 start against the Angels, Blackburn felt enough pain in his rib cage area to wonder if he had broken a rib. In May, he battled left quadriceps problems that eventually sent him to the disabled list.
When he returned from the DL, he pitched poorly and was sent to Class AAA Rochester on July 4 in search of his groove.
Looking back on it all, the Twins believe that Blackburn's physical issues led to breakdowns in his mechanics, which led to poor pitches.
"He got all out of whack trying to take the load off of what hurts," Gardenhire said.
He looked back in alignment on Friday.
"It felt a lot better," Blackburn said. "Just finally putting it all together."