PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Nick Blackburn has earned a spot in the starting rotation, leaving two pitchers batting for the fifth spot -- Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey.

Blackburn tossed three perfect innings Saturday in a 6-1 victory over the Rays.

"I’d say Blacky’s in the rotation," Gardenhire said. "I like that sinkerball. I like the way he’s going about it. If he’s healthy, he’s going at it pretty good. I like what we’re seeing. He’s one of my guys."

Blackburn went 10-12 with a 5.42 ERA last year but had arthroscopic surgery to remove loose particles from his right elbow and has come back feeling strong. He also tossed two scoreless innings against Boston in his first start.

"This is probably the best I’ve felt in the last several springs, with knees and everything included," Blackburn said. "I’m finally getting out there to run a little bit. My legs feel stronger, which carries over to my delivery, too. My elbow feels great. I can’t remember having as much freedom in my elbow as I’ve had."

Gardenhire hinted that he'd like to make it a three-man battle for the final rotation spot, adding prospect Kyle Gibson to the mix. But the manager knows the front office will lean toward starting Gibson in the minors.

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