FORT MYERS, FLA. - A pitcher only has so many tools in his tool belt, and last year, Twins righthander Nick Blackburn was missing his hammer.
Maybe that's a strong word for Blackburn's slider. His best pitch over the years has been a sinking fastball, and his slider never made knees buckle the way Francisco Liriano's does.
In fact, Blackburn's slider was actually a modified version of a cut fastball, thrown hard and tailing into a lefthanded hitter's hands. It gave him something different than his sinker, helping him reach the big leagues in 2007 and helping him earn a four-year, $14 million contract last spring.
Years ago, former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan warned Blackburn not to throw his slider so much, fearing he would damage his elbow.
According to the website FanGraphs.com, 21 percent of the pitches Blackburn threw in 2009 were sliders. Last year, that number dipped to 11 percent.
"I didn't throw my slider for months," Blackburn said.
Did hitters notice?
"Oh yeah," Blackburn said. "I went to a Garth Brooks concert this offseason and ran into Russell Branyan [a former Indians and Mariners slugger, now with the Diamondbacks]. He told me the hitters picked up on that pretty quickly."
Blackburn didn't say anything to the media, but a nagging right elbow issue had become acute, robbing him of the slider and the critical movement on his sinker.
"He never complained," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "He just kept taking the ball. That just tells you the kind of makeup Blackie has."
In late July, Blackburn lugged his 6.66 ERA to Class AAA Rochester and worked on a different tool: his changeup.
After four good starts for Rochester, he returned to the Twins and posted a 3.05 ERA in his final eight starts. He did it throwing his changeup twice as much as he did in 2009, according to FanGraphs.
The Twins had Blackburn lined up to be their No. 4 starter in the postseason before the Yankees bounced them in three games. A few days later, Blackburn had arthroscopic surgery to clean out the loose particles in his elbow.
He returned to the mound Monday against the Red Sox and pitched two scoreless innings in a 7-6 loss. He gave up two hits but got Boston to hit four ground balls.
"He went right at the hitters," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Good velocity and good movement."
Blackburn didn't throw any sliders Monday, but that's because Anderson advised him to focus on his sinker and changeup, a common practice for a starting pitcher in his first spring outing.
Blackburn, 28, said he has been throwing his slider in bullpen sessions and is rediscovering the feel.
"Last year, I didn't have a great season, but I learned how to pitch without my slider, which is something that I haven't been able to do for my entire career," he said. "Hopefully, adding that slider will make it a little easier. I won't have to rely on the sinker as much, and I can kind of mix it up."