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A’s All-Star Blackburn ready to put latest setback behind him

Oakland A pitcher Paul Blackburn participates in practice during the first day of Oakland A’s spring practice at Hohokam Stadium February 15, 2023 in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by John Medina

MESA, Ariz. — Paul Blackburn has faced many adversities since joining the Oakland A’s in 2017, a series of trials that have given the 29-year-old right-hander perspective during his six seasons in the big league.

Struggling with injuries to his right elbow and forearm that kept him out for most of 2018, he recorded the worst numbers of his career in 2019 and spent most of the season in Triple-A only to struggle even more. Two years later, the Heritage High product was selected for action after pitching just 2.1 innings in the shortened 2020 season. And even after being selected as Oakland’s only All-Star last season in the midst of the best year of his career, Blackburn’s season was cut short again after he tore the flexor tendon sheath in his right middle finger in August.

But instead of falling into the ‘dark places’ where his previous setbacks have taken him, Blackburn has found light at the end of the tunnel with his recent injury. His rehab has progressed ahead of schedule, culminating in his first appearance since injury on Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas against the Reds.

“I know a lot of times you come back from an injury and you have that kind of mental block that you have like, ‘Man, I hope this isn’t happening, I hope I’m not feeling it,'” Blackburn said on Friday. “I never had that. I think it’s a step in the right direction when you’re coming back from injury.

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At the start of spring training, A’s manager Mark Kotsay was optimistic about the status of Blackburn and fellow right-hander James Kaprielian, who has undergone off-season shoulder surgery on his AC joint. Both have thrown off a hill and against hitters a number of times this spring, but Blackburn will be the first to start a game during camp.

And the right-hander couldn’t be happier with his position.

“I feel like it’s been a really long time since I’ve been out there and just been able to compete,” Blackburn said. “Everything feels good physically at the moment. I feel like I’m way ahead of what I thought by how I feel and how much confidence I have with what I’ve mastered last year.

In 21 starts last season, Blackburn had a 4.28 earned run average over 111.1 innings with 89 strikeouts and just 30 walks. His performance took a drastic dip in the second half after posting a £3.62 ERA in 97.0 innings in the first half en route to his first All-Star game appearance.

However, Blackburn only started three games in the second half and allowed 14 earned runs in as many innings as before his injury.

Blackburn is looking to return to Oakland’s rotation ahead of Opening Day as the group’s most experienced arm in full health. No player on the staff has started more games with the A’s than Blackburn (48).

His career 5.09 ERA during that span shows he’s had plenty of struggles, but the Bay Area native has still found ways to learn from those difficulties. He referenced how difficult such experiences were early in his career, when spring training was an opportunity to prove his worth rather than prepare for a season.

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“There were times when I went out, especially early in the spring when I tried to go out and be too perfect,” Blackburn said. “You’re trying to be someone you’re not. You see that a lot in the first week, you see guys going out there and pushing way too hard or falling. You’re only trying to make such a good impression early on when you’re not being yourself and what brought you here.”

He struggled with similar problems in his sophomore season, spending most of the season on the injured list with a torn right forearm and later lateral epicondylitis in his right elbow. When Blackburn fielded in 2018, albeit in six games, he posted a whopping 7.16 ERA in six starts. He found himself caught up in a mental battle that every injured player trying to help their team goes through.

But that didn’t seem to be the case with his recent injury. Not at all.

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