Travis Blackley, LHP
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on May 13, 2006
It's been 16 months and four days since Travis Blackley underwent labrum surgery in a Beverly Hills, California operating room, care of Dr. Lewis Yocum.
But just five weeks have passed since the 23-year-old southpaw began an improbable return to the mound that has brought back memories of the pitcher that was named the Seattle Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year and the Texas League Pitcher of the Year in 2003.
In February of 2005, Blackley's future seemed dark and mysterious, and I don't mean that in a positive way. Labrum surgery recipients rarely return to form and the thoughts going through the minds of both the club and pitcher displayed doubt – a lot of doubt.
Blackley's worries, however, were more about falling out of favor with the organization rather than any doubts that he'd make it back.
"I'm 21 now," said Blackley just days after the procedure. "I'll miss this season (2005) and since I don't know where I'll pitch to start 2006, I could be 25 before I get another shot."
He could be right, but… I doubt it.
"I have to be honest," said a Mariners personnel executive. "I was extremely skeptical, just because it's a very serious and delicate surgery for a pitcher to have and he was so young. I truly wasn't expecting him to even be where he is now. But at this pace, if he can keep it up, he's going to force our hand a lot sooner than even the most optimistic expected.
"I know our coaches and scouts in Texas have been overly impressed with what he's shown. I think we're going to play it safe, of course, but he'll deserve a promotion before he gets one, most likely. I've been told some really good things about him since the surgery and it's made me wish I was more directly involved with this kid."
Seven starts into his return, Blackley is gaining strength and command and has even more confidence in his repaired shoulder. Sporting a strong 3.96 ERA and averaging more than five innings per outing is encouraging, but this past Tuesday's performance at Springfield has truly picked up the water-cooler banter.
"Is T-Black back?" asked one M's fan.
No, not yet, though it appears as if it's inevitable, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's taken the time to pay attention to me over the past few years.
Blackley's perseverance and confidence is something I picked up on immediately after watching him pitch in Tacoma in April, 2004. He oozes confidence and is more than just stubborn. He's downright ornery when it comes to his abilities. He won't let anyone tell him he can't do something.
Seems like an Australian epidemic, doesn't it?
On Tuesday night at Hammonds Field in Springfield, Missouri, Blackley once again displayed an able left-handed arm, including a shoulder that's producing a consistent fastball in the 86-88 range.
In typical fashion, Blackley sawed off a half-dozen bats and induced a Washburn-like nine fly-outs to just five ground-ball outs, showing once again why a healthy Blackley is a perfect fit for Safeco Field.
Blackley threw a season-high 102 pitches, 63 for strikes, mixing a four-seam fastball in the 86-90 range [yes, he touched 90 a few times], a solid curve ball, a change-up that's making the difference as he regains the feel for the pitch, and a cutter, which has been his best pitch most of the season.
But the biggest differences in his final line were in the final two columns of the team pitching charts; Walks – 1; Strikeouts – 7.
He'd walked just 10 batters in his previous 31 1/3 innings but he'd balanced that with just 16 strikeouts, which wasn't a major concern since it's so early in his rehabilitation stages.
It's normal for pitchers recovering from shoulder surgery to take months, even a few years to pull back the command they once had pre-injury, so a one-walk, seven-inning start is mighty impressive.
Blackley cruised through six no-hit innings, walking a batter and striking out five.
With a 1-0 lead in the seventh, he ran into trouble, starting with a lead-off double by Cardinals outfielder Reid Gorecki, the Texas League's home run leader and owner of a .619 slugging percentage.
Rico Washington then lined out to second baseman Michael Garciaparra for the first out, but after Blackley's pick-off attempt sailed wide of second base, Gorecki went to third and then strolled home on a ground-ball single by Ike Franco to tie the game.
Blackley struck out Brian Martin – swinging – before Franco's single and fanned Juan Richardson – swinging – to end the inning.
All seven of Blackley's strikeouts were swinging strike-threes, many on a dazzling change-up and a curve ball that was breaking late – a great sign that he's getting closer to his 2003-2004 form.
He's probably going to be inconsistent at times, still, but this outing was certainly evidence that he's got enough stuff to dictate a strong lineup.
Blackley is dominating left-handers and limiting them to an .075 average and a .191 slugging percentage, but is having issues with right-handed batters (.296 BAA), having given up all of his six homers against them.
More improvement from his change-up will cure that. He held right-handed batters to a .233 average in 2003 and a .246 in .2004.
Overall, hitters are batting just .226 versus the left-hander.
Consistency is the key factor in Blackley's return and every time he takes the hill after a solid start, he's looking for several things, including a steady release point which allows him to command his pitches.
"He's been somewhat strong since the get-go" said an LA Angels scout. "He's been better than anyone could have expected. That cutter is a major-league pitch on its own and his curve ball is coming around. I wouldn't worry so much about velocity but that doesn't appear to be a problem already."
One opposing hitter now in the Pacific Coast League offered this assessment, under complete anonymity:
"I don't want to be here when Blackley comes up. I just hate facing him. I rarely strike out against him but that [bleeper] seems to know exactly what I'm expecting and not only throw the opposite speed but to the opposite location. And it's always too close to take. I hate him. I hate Travis Blackley. Unless I'm on his team some day, I'll just go on hating him.
"He snares at you like he's John Wayne and the hitter is the drunken loser who just robbed an old lady of her last nickel. You just want to throw your bat at him or something. Or maybe I'll get traded to Seattle 'cause I'm taking the day off if I come back to Tacoma and he's on the mound. He ruins my whole approach and it effects my thought process for days. I know of a couple of our guys that feel the same way, though they may not admit it.
"I'm not afraid to admit it; he's got my number… and my address and social security number, too. But I'm not alone."
So when Blackley strolls to the hill tomorrow afternoon for a Mother's Day tilt, sneak off to the office to keep track of his eighth start. Blackley is well on his way back to being the solid performer he was before the injury occurred.
And wouldn't it be nice to pencil his name into the starting rotation sometime in the next year and be able to sit back and think "ahhh, sweet, Blackley's on the hill and Snelling's hitting fifth. The M's are going to win tonight."
Aussies rule, don't they?
Photo Credit –
Travis Blackley: Stephanie Sanchez/San Antonio Missions