From DFA to All-Star: The Improbable Rise of Paul Blackburn

From DFA to All-Star: The Improbable Rise of Paul Blackburn

Courtesy of Mary DeCicco/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — How can you not be romantic about baseball?

It's fitting that the most memorable line from 'Moneyball,' a film about the Oakland Athletics, applies so perfectly to the team's All-Star representative this season.

Just last year, Paul Blackburn was designated for assignment and outrighted to the minor leagues. Essentially, the A's told him they didn't have a roster spot for him so pack your bags. Every other team in baseball had a chance to claim him, but none did.

At 27 years old, that might have been the end for some pitchers. But not Blackburn.

The Brentwood native kept working at his craft, eventually earning a call back to the majors last August. Less than a year later, against all odds, he found himself pitching in Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.

“It's just kind of crazy, honestly,” Blackburn said. “This whole year has really been kind of like a blur to me. Just found a good routine that works for me and I just keep doing it, and all of a sudden, we're at the All-Star break now. It's been an awesome year so far.”

Blackburn pitched a scoreless fourth inning, including a strikeout of San Francisco Giants slugger Joc Pederson, helping the American League to a 3-2 win over the National League.

The now 28-year-old has been a bright spot for the struggling A's this year, going 6-5 with 3.62 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 18 starts. That follows a tumultuous 2021 campaign which saw him stumble to a 5.87 ERA in nine starts.

Perhaps even more staggering, Blackburn entered 2022 with a career ERA of 5.74. In just half a season, he's shaved nearly an entire run off of that mark, down to 4.86.

“I think a lot of it is mentality,” Blackburn explained. “This is the first year I really made the team out of spring and kind of had an Opening Day and everything. When you go through that, it kind of allows you to settle in with the guys and just build from there.

“In the past when I'd come up for a spot start, it was a lot of trying to show these guys that I could be a part of this team,” he continued. “And I feel like I added a little bit of that pressure on myself through those times. This year it was just different. ... Getting to go through a prep, have a good start, bounce back from bad starts, whenever they might be, and not worry so much like, 'I have to be perfect or else I'm going back on a plane tomorrow.'”

It has looked different on the outside too. In some ways, Blackburn is still the same pitcher, a somewhat undersized right-hander without overwhelming velocity.

But as he described, his mentality is completely different. He's learned how to mix his pitches and consistently hit his spots to keep batters off-balance.

More importantly, he believes he belongs. If he gives up a home run, so what? He'll get the next batter.

“As athletes, in general, I feel like we're very resilient people,” Blackburn said. “In this game, you're used to getting knocked down so much that you have no choice but to get up and keep going. ... If you want something, you've got to keep getting up when times get tough. I feel like that's kind of how I've approached it.”

On Tuesday, Blackburn had a massive cheering section on hand for his All-Star Game debut, including his parents, grandparents, fiancé, and daughter. The Heritage High School graduate also enjoyed the presence of former coaches and high school friends.

“It's been a lot of fun,” Blackburn smiled. “Just being here with a bunch of great players just kind of sharing this experience with them, it's been awesome.”

Among those great players was three-time AL MVP Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, whose locker was right next to Blackburn's in the visiting clubhouse.

“It's awesome — it's freakin' Mike Trout,” Blackburn said, laughing. “I mean, I'm still a fan, too. It's awesome. It's definitely really cool just to be able to share a locker room with all of those guys. It's a really cool experience.”

So let's ask again — with apologies to Brad Pitt — how can you not be romantic about baseball?

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