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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Clayton Blackburn is an easygoing, 21-year-old pitcher who tends to take things in stride – even the experience of his first major league camp, lockering a few stalls down from the likes of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
But Blackburn’s pinch-me moment arrived Sunday afternoon.
On the golf course.
It was hard enough to believe that Tim Hudson, the game’s active wins leader, invited Blackburn to join his foursome. Then Blackburn got to the course and discovered he’d be playing with big leaguers Nick Punto and Josh Donaldson, too.
“Oh, they took care of me,” said Blackburn, who didn’t dare wager his meal money.
“He probably would’ve won,” Hudson said with a grin.
Some veterans will tell you they don’t believe in clubhouse cliques. Hudson proves it. When he and Blackburn were paired up in the same group for drills, the 17-year generation gap dissolved quickly enough. They talked about golf. Hudson asked Blackburn to join him on the course.
“I was like, `OK sure,’” Blackburn said. “Then the first thing I did was call my dad and say, `You’ll never guess what just happened.’”
Hudson, 38, said he never forgot how welcomed he felt in the A’s clubhouse when he broke into the big leagues.
“Some of us haven’t arrived yet, but all of us are in here together,” Hudson said. “When I came up, I was fortunate. There were a lot of young guys. We had fun together. The veterans didn’t give us a hard time. It made it easy for me to feel comfortable. You feel like part of the team, and I always remembered that. One day you’ll be relying on these young guys to pitch a game or get an out for you.
“And besides, who wants to be the a-hole veteran? That’s not me.”
The Giants probably won’t need Blackburn to get an out in the big leagues this season. In terms of pure stuff, he’s not the most exciting pitcher in the system. But he’s an uncanny strike thrower who features a true four-pitch mix. And for a pitcher drafted out of high school, his command and mound presence stand out.
The Oklahoma native had a full ride to pitch for the Sooners but signed almost the moment the Giants spent a 16th-round pick on him. He was eager to start a pro career, and as an 18-year-old, he jumped right in.
Competing in the Arizona Rookie League just a couple weeks after graduating from high school, Blackburn posted a 1.08 ERA in 33.1 innings while striking out 30 and walking just three.
“Being a pro ballplayer is just something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Blackburn, who credits his father and high school coach Dave Walsh, who had a 10-year pro career, with teaching him about pitching. “My first outing my legs were shaking coming in from the bullpen. But after the first couple pitches, it was like any other outing. It started to become just baseball.”
Blackburn endured a few bumps at Single-A San Jose last season when he lost his arm slot and, for the first time, pressed a bit to make adjustments. A big-bodied right-hander who has drawn comparisons to Joe Blanton and Rick Reuschel, Blackburn lost a few pounds this offseason and plans to be more diligent about his conditioning.
“I’ve pitched for two years without getting hurt, but everybody wants to feel better about themselves when they wake up in the morning,” he said.
(He didn't feel so great about the way he woke up Monday morning, though. Someone pulled the fire alarm at 5 a.m. in the hotel where he's staying.)
Blackburn only touches 90 mph, but his durability has been a strength. He tends to get better the deeper he gets in a game. And he has an ability beyond his years to mix speeds with a 12-to-6 curveball and changeup.
He’s expected to graduate to the rotation at Double-A Richmond this season, along with fellow prospects Kyle Crick, Ty Blach and Adalberto Mejia.
Soon enough, he hopes to be staring down big league hitters – like Punto and Donaldson.
“We got all 18 in,” said Blackburn.
The foursome played a poker game in which players received a card for birdies, a card for one-putt greens and two cards for no-putt greens. Blackburn was able to make two pair from his hand. Punto pulled both jokers, and used them to make a straight flush.
You couldn’t help Blackburn from feeling like the lucky one, though. He’s got more than a golf partner a few lockers down. He’s got a friend – one who knows a little bit about pitching, too.
“I hope I can see him throw a little more, but I haven’t seen much so far,” Hudson said. “The trainers have got me on the geriatric program in here.
“…But he’s a good golfer. I’ve seen him golf.”