One-on-One with Travis Blackley

No youngster was more impressive this spring than 21-year-old Australian southpaw Travis Blackley. Coming off a 17-3 season at Double-A San Antonio, the lefty didn't allow a hit in five innings this March. Bound for Triple-A this April, Blackley talked to InsidethePark.com's Joe Kaiser recently to update his progress.

If there was ever a day for Travis Blackley to be unhappy, it would have been last Monday when he was reassigned by the Seattle Mariners to their minor league camp.

Yet there he was, upbeat under the Arizona sun, smiling and cracking jokes with the rest of the M's minor leaguers on the Triple-A field at Peoria Sports Complex.

"Alright, it's time to run," he said with a laugh to fellow lefty Jose Nunez in his thick Australian accent.

Not exactly what you'd expect out of a young pitcher who had pitched well in every chance he was given, yet been sent down nonetheless.

Blackley, who some felt had an outside chance of landing one of the Mariners' final spots on the pitching staff in Spring Training, had every reason to be frustrated.

In his five innings this spring, he was about as dominant as one could be. He didn't allow a hit and struck out seven batters while walking just one. And that one walk quickly turned into an out when the 21-year-old southpaw picked the baserunner off first base.

"One of the coaches asked me if I walked him on purpose just so I could throw him out," said Blackley.

With veteran lefties Ron Villone, Terry Mulholland and Mike Myers in camp, the M's decided to go with experience rather than youth.

But the impression the young Aussie left on the M's couldn't have been better, and that's exactly what Blackley said he set out to do this March. He says he knew his chances of sticking with the big league club were slim.

"My whole idea of Spring Training was just to do what I did," said Blackley, who throws five pitches and has a fastball that tops out at 90 mph. "When (Seattle) needs to call somebody up and they need to take me, they can be confident in me."

Already, Blackley says he's confident in himself, feeling in what he calls "mid-season form."

"Right now I'm confortable with all my pitches except my curveball," he said. "It's giving me a little bit grief right now. It's just a matter of locating that pitch. I backdoor fine on a righty, but I can't seem to get it in there on a lefty."

As for his other pitches?

Blackley explained. "I'll throw my changeup in any count. I hardly ever throw that pitch down the middle anyway. As for my sinker and four-seam, if you're not comfortable with your fastball you can't call yourself a pitcher. My cutter, I've been able to bury which has been a good sign."

Coming off an incredible statistical season at Double-A San Antonio, where he went 17-3 with a 2.61 ERA and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 144-to-62, Blackley says he continues to focus on improving his command of all of his pitches.

Spouting off his stats and recalling basically any situation in his baseball career like it happened yesterday, Blackley says there was a noticeable difference in the batters from High-A, where he pitched in 2002, to Double-A. He says that was the main reason his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 152-to-44 at San Bernadino was worse, albeit only slightly, last year.

"A lot of guys weren't batting at 3-and-2 offspeed pitches out of the zone, and I could get away with that in Single-A," Blackley said.

Slated to start 2004 at Triple-A Tacoma along with fellow top prospects Clint Nageotte and Rett Johnson, Blackley hopes to carry the momentum of his solid spring with him.

Several at-bats stand out in his mind from this March, but three rise tall above the rest. All were strikeouts.

The first came against San Diego's slugger Ryan Klesko, whom Blackley calls one of the best batters he's ever faced. After getting Klesko to foul off two off-speed pitches on a 3-and-2 count, the Aussie went right at him with the heat.

"I grooved a fastball down and away. Dan didn't move his glove," says Blackley of catcher Dan Wilson. Down went a frustrated Klesko, who argued the call.

Then there was the at-bat against Colorado third baseman Vinny Castilla. After falling behind in the count 2-and-0, Blackley battled back.

"I got a called strike and he swung through a change. On the 2-and-2 pitch, he swung through a slider." Another whiff.

That slider, Blackley says, is his most improved pitch.

Then came the at-bat that Blackley will never forget, one that taught him a life-long pitching lesson.

The victim? Andy Tracy of the Colorado Rockies.

Lets allow Blackley to explain the situation.

"Lefty, lefty. Dan Wilson, a great catcher to pitch to, sets up on the black. On the corner, strike one fastball. Wilson then set up six inches off the plate, hits the glove. Strike two. Third one was stupid away, a foot away. I hit it and rung him up. That's probably the favorite strikeout I've ever had. I threw that pitch and no joke I stood up towards the catcher to get the ball back. Tried to wipe off the smile and get my game face.

"That was definitely tough luck on the hitter. He's getting rung up on a ball a foot off the plate."

Blackley says he learned that if you can hit the glove, even if it is outside the zone, you can get the strike call.

Starting April 16, he'll take that and all the rest he's learned this spring to Tacoma to start the season with the Rainiers.

How long he stays there is another story.


Joe Kaiser is the publisher of InsidethePark.com and appreciates your feedback at joe-kaiser@excite.com.

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