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Blackburn cements big-game status

Blackburn cements big-game status

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NEW YORK -- For Nick Blackburn to be considered the ultimate big-game pitcher, the Twins will have to win the next two playoff games against the Yankees at the Metrodome on Sunday and Monday nights.

Those victories would even the best-of-five American League Division Series at two games apiece and would send Blackburn to the mound in a Game 5 against A.J. Burnett on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. In lieu of that comeback taking place, "Big Game" Blackburn once again accounted for himself more than sufficiently in his start in the Twins' 4-3 Game 2 loss on Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

Blackburn worked 5 2/3 innings, giving up just one run on three hits, while striking out three and walking two. He dominated the potent Bombers lineup early, carrying a no-hitter into the fifth, having yielded a one-out walk to Hideki Matsui in the second and nothing more.

Pitching in important games is nothing new to the 27-year-old right-hander. It was Blackburn who limited the White Sox to just a Jim Thome home run over 6 1/3 innings in Chicago's 1-0 victory over Minnesota in the tiebreaker contest played at U.S. Cellular Field to decide the 2008 AL Central crown.

And Blackburn posted a victory over the White Sox on Sept. 21 this season. He then turned in quality starts in the first game of a four-game series at Detroit on Sept. 29 and did the same working on three days' rest against Kansas City at home on Oct. 3. The Twins won both of those starts, with Blackburn being opposed by AL Cy Young Award favorite Zack Greinke in the Royals contest, games Minnesota desperately needed to pull off its amazing comeback and overtake Detroit at the top of the AL Central.

So how has Blackburn transformed himself into Minnesota's most trusted starter, if not its staff ace, in just his second full Major League season? Keeping things normal is the explanation Blackburn provided on Friday.

"The most important thing for me is not putting extra pressure on the game," Blackburn said. "It's still a baseball game, so you have to do your job and stay within your limits. Anything else -- adding that extra pressure -- and it makes it harder to perform."

Division Series
Gm. 1NYY 7, MIN 2WrapVideo
Gm. 2NYY 4, MIN 3 (11)WrapVideo
Gm. 3NYY 4, MIN 1WrapVideo

In Game 2, the sixth inning marked the only jam for Blackburn, eventually leading to the end of his night. With New York trailing, 1-0, Derek Jeter started the Yankees' brief rally with a one-out double to right-center and Johnny Damon walked. Mark Teixeira made the frame's second out on a routine fly ball to left field, after missing a three-run home run down the right-field line on a shot that was only a few feet foul.

To illustrate Blackburn's composure, he explained after the game how he was trying to get the ball inside on Teixeira and that long foul ball was the desired result.

"That's what we wanted to do with it," Blackburn said. "I was fine to see that happen."

Alex Rodriguez followed with a ground single between third baseman Brendan Harris and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, scoring Jeter with the tying run. It was Blackburn's one big mistake in an otherwise routine big-game performance.

"He threw a phenomenal game," said Harris. "He attacked the strike zone and had a lot of movement on his sinker."

But after the game, Blackburn had what he didn't do on his mind.

"If I get that ball two inches out on Rodriguez, closer to the outside corner, he beats that ball to the shortstop," Blackburn said. "But I left it over the plate, and he did the only thing he could, which was pull it into left field. If I could get that on the corner more, he's out."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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