Blackburn waiting in Twins' wings
Readiness of Liriano, Baker could leave him in or out of rotation
SARASOTA, Fla. -- A large tractor trailer departed the Twins' complex in Fort Myers, Fla., on Wednesday afternoon carrying much of the team's equipment along with many of the players' personal belongings.One player who didn't have anything on that truck was right-hander Nick Blackburn, who is awaiting word of where he will start the season. "Luckily I packed pretty light, so I'm not going to have to carry on too much extra," Blackburn said after his start Thursday, chuckling slightly. With just two days remaining in Spring Training, the Twins have 13 pitchers in camp and plan to take just 12 of them to Minnesota. Blackburn is the pitcher sitting on the bubble as the Twins wait to see how Francisco Liriano pitches Friday before determining the final rotation spot. If Liriano shows more progress in that start, there is a chance he could break camp with the Twins. Otherwise, Blackburn would be in line for the job. Before Thursday's game against the Reds, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hinted that if he had his way, Liriano would start the year in the Minors. "There are a lot of question marks in my mind with him breaking camp with us," Gardenhire said of Liriano. "He came in [to camp] late. He just really started throwing the ball in his last outing. ... I want to see if he progresses again. But to say 'Yeah, if he definitely progresses then he's with me,' I'm not buying that, either. "There is going to be a lot of conversation about [the Liriano decision]. I know this -- it won't hurt him to get a couple more starts underneath his belt." Blackburn made that scenario a little easier for the Twins with his performance Thursday. He pitched five innings, giving up just one run on three hits to the Reds' projected Opening Day lineup. The right-hander has posted a 2.25 ERA over 16 innings this spring. He's impressed the coaching staff with his ability to mix all of his pitches, something he struggled to do during his September callup last season. "It's nice to see him go out against top of the lineup guys and have a performance like that," Gardenhire said. "He threw the heck out of the ball."
One slight concern for the Twins had been whether Blackburn could stretch out enough to be ready for the start of the season. That didn't appear to be a problem, as he threw 70 pitches in this latest start, leaving him projected to be somewhere around 80-85 pitches for that first regular-season outing.So Blackburn's future likely rests on the Liriano decision. Still, there is always a chance that he could also take the place of right-hander Scott Baker if Baker begins the year on the disabled list. After Baker threw 49 pitches in a three-inning Minor League start Wednesday, the Twins are optimistic he'll be ready to go. A final decision on Baker won't be made until after he pitches again Sunday in a Minor League contest in Fort Myers, Fla. Due to the fact the rotation is still unsettled, it's unclear just how the starters will fall into line for the first week of the season. Gardenhire had originally said the first three starts would go to Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser and Kevin Slowey -- in that order -- but that has changed slightly. Gardenhire said if Blackburn is in the rotation, he possibly could start in the season's third game on Wednesday against the Angels. That would put Slowey, who is scheduled for his final spring start Saturday, in line for next Thursday, with Baker likely to pitch Friday against the Royals. That, of course, would all change if the team takes Liriano north. Still, while it's been a wait-and-see process for Blackburn, he doesn't seem to be too upset by the uncertainty so late in camp. "It's exciting to know that you are in the race and know that you are this close to making the team," Blackburn said. "Whether or not I make it, I feel like I've had a good spring and it's going to help with my confidence a lot." Blackburn, 26, may be patient and his belongings might all fit onto whatever plane he takes, but the Twins made most of their cuts earlier this week so that players' vehicles could be sent to the right place. So where is the right-hander's car now? "It's back in Oklahoma," Blackburn said. "My mom keeps asking me where they should take it to and I said, 'I don't know.' I guess I'll just be bumming rides wherever I go for the first month."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.