Twins' Blackburn has had long wait for first start
By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS — Nick Blackburn will make his first major league start tonight. The Minnesota Twins weren’t sure he would ever make it that far.
"It’s a feel-good story for our minor league system," said Rick Knapp, the pitching coordinator for Minnesota’s farm teams.
To be fair, Blackburn might not have a spot in the rotation right now had Francisco Liriano been ready to start the season. Liriano is recovering from major elbow surgery that kept him out for all of 2007.
"I’m not going to worry about that right now," said Blackburn, who could move to the bullpen if and when Liriano is brought up. "I’m just going to go out and do my job and not be concerned about what’s going on around me. I just want to get people out and keep the team in it."
The Twins drafted Blackburn in the 29th round in 2001 out of Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma, where he later made an impression on Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire — whose son, Toby, was once hit by a pitch from Blackburn to start a game.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander had a knee problem, though, that worsened during his first pro season with Elizabethton in the Appalachian League. He ultimately needed two surgeries, couldn’t run for a while and watched his weight soar near 260 pounds in 2003.
"He caught our eye, but not in a very favorable way because his body kind of got out of control," said Knapp, who was credited by general manager Bill Smith for his guidance of Blackburn through the system.
After an injection of a cartilage-like substance into his knee, the joint started getting better. Over the course of the next few years, Blackburn shed about 30 pounds, added velocity to his fastball and continued to develop his curveball, change up and slider.
Following a so-so 2006 season with Double-A New Britain, Blackburn was challenged that fall in a pep talk from Knapp and showed up for the next spring training "like a new man," Knapp said. "He just blew up."
Blackburn shined last year, drawing a promotion to Triple-A Rochester in May and compiling a 7-3 record and 2.11 ERA in 17 starts with only 12 walks in 110 2-3 innings. Baseball America magazine recently selected him as the team’s top prospect.
"I had nowhere near the thought that he would do what he did," Knapp said. "He’s a success story, his own success story."
Though Liriano’s status brought an asterisk to the situation, Blackburn distinguished himself in a group of young candidates for a starting job during spring training.
"He’s just got great stuff," Gardenhire said. "When he uses all his pitches, he’s got as good stuff as anyone on the staff."
Blackburn gained some confidence from that, as well as a September stint in the majors last season when he made six relief appearances.
"Hopefully everything comes in and works out the way I’m preparing it to," he said.