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Blackburn finds form in return to mound

Blackburn finds form in return to mound

MINNEAPOLIS -- A text message greeted Nick Blackburn when he arrived at his locker following the Twins' 4-3 walk-off victory over the Tigers at Target Field on Tuesday night.

It was a message from Josh Raney, the baseball coach at Blanchard (Okla.) High School. Raney had caught Blackburn's bullpen session on Sunday, while the starting pitcher was back at home in Oklahoma to tend to a family matter.

First off, Raney made sure to tell Blackburn that he was available to catch any bullpens the starter needed to throw following his strong night on the mound. But since the pitcher had wound up with a complete-game victory despite giving up a game-tying home run in the ninth, Raney also couldn't help but chide Blackburn a little bit as well.

"I think that home run ball just landed in my front yard," the text read.

Even Blackburn couldn't help but laugh at the message. It wasn't difficult for the right-hander to laugh since Tuesday night was a rebound night of sorts for the pitcher.

When he took the mound against the Tigers on Tuesday night, Blackburn was making his first start since April 24 in Kansas City. He had been gone from the team for three days this past weekend and missed his original scheduled start on Friday after returning home to Oklahoma to deal with a family emergency.

With everything now OK for his family, Blackburn was able to return to the mound. And he didn't just find himself back in the Twins' rotation following a brief reprieve; the right-hander also rediscovered his old form on this night as well.

Blackburn had struggled out of the gate this season, posting a team-high 6.85 ERA in his first four starts. When asked recently about his struggles, Blackburn said that he felt he'd been overthrowing early this season and thus his pitches had flattened out.

But the sinkerball pitcher seemed to get things back on track against the Tigers. Having worked with pitching coach Rick Anderson to make a mechanical adjustment in his delivery, Blackburn got his sinker back to its nasty form as it helped induce 18 ground-ball outs against the Tigers.

"I don't think he had a great feel for his breaking ball early in the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But his sinker, his sinker just kept going and going and diving. He was getting so many easy outs with sinkers that he just kept throwing them. He eventually found a nice little slider and everything was good from there."

"I threw probably the least amount of offspeed I have in a long time," Blackburn added. "Those guys were just beating it into the ground. If it weren't for my sinker tonight, who knows what would have happened."

The longer layoff between starts didn't seem to affect Blackburn either. A concern had been that he might be too strong, as he feels his sinker usually works best when his legs are a little tired. But Blackburn said he had focused so much recently on staying relaxed and not overthrowing that the performance came pretty naturally against the Tigers despite having gone so many days between starts.

"The last couple starts I've been trying to make it sink rather than let it do it on its own," Blackburn said. "I have to get back to where I was last year, which almost felt effortless when I was throwing well. I think today we were closer to that point."

Blackburn's return to the mound was a successful one as it resulted in a win -- although it was a little more difficult than he imagined due to that home run.

With the Twins leading by one heading into the ninth, Blackburn was sent back out for the final inning. He had thrown just 85 pitches through eight and was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd when he headed back out to the mound.

But it took just two pitches for the cheers to turn into stunned silence when Brennan Boesch took an 0-1 curveball from Blackburn deep into the right-field seats to tie the game at 3.

"We had been throwing him fastballs and changeups all night," Blackburn said, "He probably was sitting changeup and I threw a curveball and it broke right into his swing."

The right-hander managed to recover from the home run and get two quick outs. A double to left field by Alex Avila looked like it might be trouble, but Blackburn got some help from his defense -- particularly shortstop J.J. Hardy -- in the inning to keep it a tie game. And then Hardy helped ensure the victory by tripling with one out in the bottom of the ninth and then scoring on a wild pitch to give the Twins the walk-off win.

As for the text message from Raney, Blackburn was still laughing about it when talking to reporters after the contest, but he said the jab from his offseason ping-pong playing partner wouldn't be forgotten either.

"That's OK," Blackburn said, chuckling. "I'll get him back."

Kelly Thesier 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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