Nick Blackburn remembers telling his wife that if he had to have another operation, he probably wouldn’t pitch anymore.
That was two surgeries ago.
Which explains why the righthanded Oklahoman, just 32 years old and walking on a knee with no remaining cartilage, is looking forward to spring training not in Florida or Arizona, but at Washington High School in Oklahoma, about 10 miles south of Norman. This fall, the former Twins pitcher takes over as the baseball head coach for the Warriors, hoping to pass along secrets of his sinker and changeup to a new generation of athletes.
He also serves as a good example of what a lifetime spent trying to get big-league hitters out can do. “At some point, your body just starts breaking down,” said Blackburn, who has undergone multiple surgeries on his knee, elbow and wrist — nine in all, including the latest one in May. “My right knee is bone-on-bone, no cartilage left. It was just beat to death.”
Even so, just 12 months ago, Blackburn believed he still had a future in the major leagues. After all, he won 43 games over his six-year career with the Twins despite a fastball that rarely hit 90 miles per hour, and he earned more than $16 million doing it. From 2008 to ’10, he pitched 560 innings; no other Twin has had as many over a three-year span since.
His wrist began bothering him in 2011, however, especially when he threw a changeup. But he kept pitching. “I pitched a season and a half with a damaged ligament in my wrist. I was in pain pretty much the whole 2012 season, but the worst part was how I was overcompensating for it,” Blackburn said. “When you only throw 89 miles per hour, you need Kevlar out there if the ball’s not moving. So I was doing everything I could to get the ball to break a little, to drop a little, and I was putting all kinds of stress on my elbow and legs.”
He finally had surgery last spring and spent much of the summer rehabbing his wrist in Fort Myers, Fla. When the wrist healed, he was able to throw a cutter and a changeup again, and both were moving better than they had in years. “I was getting excited. I knew I wouldn’t be back with the Twins, but I thought I was in good shape for a tryout with a new team” in 2014, he said.
But when he got back on the mound in July, the throbbing returned to his knees. He made a couple of starts at Class AA New Britain, then was sent to Rochester. In the fifth inning on July 23, his only Class AAA start, he covered first base on a ground ball — and his career abruptly ended. “When I hit the bag, it felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer. Just shooting pain,” Blackburn said. “I took some injections, but it was pretty obvious the knee needed to be cleaned out. And when they did it, [doctors] said it needed a lot more work done, just so I can walk without pain again.”
He went back to Oklahoma, where he heard a nearby high school needed a baseball coach. He called, just to inquire. It didn’t take long before he had the job, and a new direction in life.
He will always have great memories of his years with the Twins — holding the Yankees to one run over six innings in the 2009 Division Series in Yankee Stadium is the best one. “The excitement of that game, there’s nothing like that,” Blackburn said. “Games like that are what we play for.” He also gave up only four hits in the one-game playoff with the White Sox in 2008, though one hit was Jim Thome’s solo home run, the game’s only run.
Now he hopes to make new memories. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy helping kids improve, seeing them learn something and using it in the game,” said Blackburn, who has dreams of opening a baseball academy, too. “It’s going to be fun.”
For now, it’s his only connection to baseball, too. It’s too soon to watch a Twins game on TV, because he still misses the competition too much. Oh, one other reason, too, said the father of four kids, all 4 and under. “It’s hard to watch many games,” Blackburn said, “when your TV is always on Disney Junior.”
Some surprises, some usual suspects in the AL Central’s first-half success stories. Here are each team’s MVPs in the first half of 2014:
Indians: Michael Brantley
Not only is he hitting a career-high .322 with 15 home runs, five more than ever before, but the outfielder is also playing Gold Glove-worthy defense.
Royals: Salvador Perez
He leads Kansas City in homers and slugging percentage, all the while handling Kansas City’s much-improved pitching staff.
Tigers: Miguel Cabrera
Complain about his severe decline in home-run production if you want, but he still leads the AL in RBI, and his 34 doubles are most in the league as well. And the move to first base has helped his defense.
White Sox: Jose Abreu
With the AL Rookie of the Year award already locked up, the $68 million rookie slugger from Cuba appears ready to threaten Albert Belle’s franchise record for home runs in a season (49).
Gibson, Hughes are top quality starters
The quality start, defined as six or more innings pitched and three or fewer runs allowed, helps show how many games a starting pitcher is giving his team a chance to win — even though they don’t always do so. A look at the Twins’ quality starts through Friday showed that Kevin Correia has pitched better than his record indicates, and that Kyle Gibson is almost unhittable when he’s at his best:
Starter QS W-L ERA
Phil Hughes 11 8-1 1.64
Kevin Correia 11 5-3 2.22
Kyle Gibson 10 7-0 0.52
Ricky Nolasco 6 2-1 2.63
Yohan Pino 2 0-0 2.08
Sam Deduno 2 1-0 3.75
But recently, a new statistic called the ultra-quality start — defined as seven or more innings and two or fewer runs allowed — helps identify those games in which a pitcher truly dominates the opposition. And the Twins’ leaders look a little different in those cases; Gibson has had as many great starts as Hughes:
Starter UQS W-L ERA
Phil Hughes 7 6-1 0.88
Kyle Gibson 7 5-0 0.53
Kevin Correia 2 1-1 1.93
Yohan Pino 1 0-0 2.57
Ricky Nolasco 1 1-0 1.12
By the way, the Twins pitcher with the most quality starts in a season? It’s Bert Blyleven, who had 29 quality starts in 1972. Since 2000, the most is Johan Santana, with 24 in 2004, the year the lefthander won his first Cy Young Award.