Phillies

Phillies

It's been eight years. 

Eight years since the Phillies made an underrated deadline trade to acquire 27-year-old Joe Blanton from the Oakland A's. Blanton went 4-0 with the Phils, won a title, won a game in that 2008 World Series and also homered. It was a magical year for him.

Two years ago, Blanton thought his playing days were over. He had bottomed out in 2013 with the Angels, going 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. The next year, he was released in spring training. He latched on with the A's for a second stint but hung up his cleats after two starts in Triple A. At that time, he was at peace with ending a 10-year big-league career. 

One successful comeback and two years later, Blanton, now a Dodgers reliever, returned to Citizens Bank Park for the first time as a visiting player.

"I went to Oakland and was in the minor leagues in Sacramento for two starts (in 2014) and I just decided I wasn't performing the way I needed to," Blanton, now 35, said prior to Thursday's game. "Being sent down for the first time, my family wasn't there, three little kids at home, I just felt like it wasn't for me anymore. 

"When I made the decision to come back I felt like I could do it, but at the same time I knew it was a long way away. It was one more try. I don't want to say for closure because I didn't really need it, I was fine with who I was. But I wanted to give it one more try and if it didn't work, it didn't work."

 

It did work. 

Blanton has resurrected his career, reinventing himself not just as a bullpen arm, but as one of the game's best relievers. His opponents have hit .167 this season. He has a 0.89 WHIP in 61 innings. His swinging strike rate is 14.2 percent, well above the MLB average of 10 percent.

Since joining the Pirates in a midseason trade last year, Blanton has posted a 2.18 ERA in 78 relief appearances with 98 strikeouts and 28 walks in 95⅓ innings.

He's a different guy. He's slimmer, going from 252 pounds all the way down to 205 at one point. He has more velocity and he throws more breaking balls. Blanton's average fastball velocity during his days with the Phillies was in the 89 mph range. This season, it's a career-high 91.2 mph. 

"I think earlier in my career if I was in the bullpen I probably would have thrown harder," Blanton said. "Out of the bullpen you get matched up more than as a starter. If you want to compare starting vs. relieving, starting you have to face the whole lineup — whether you match up well or not, you have to start on your day. You have to give and take a little more as a starter, you have to keep track of your pitch count, maybe give up a few more hits. 

"Now I only have to face a guy once a game usually. I have a starter's repertoire in the bullpen. Most guys have maybe one or two pitches. So I can kind of go with everything instead of as a starter trying to hold your slider back until the later innings or maybe not use it as much. You're able to do that. As a starter you have to establish your fastball. Out of the bullpen you don't have to do that as much."

On Wednesday, Blanton, in his first game at Citizens Bank Park as a non-Phillie, struck out Aaron Altherr on a tight, sharp slider. The Phillies knew to expect breaking balls from him. Blanton has thrown his slider 38 percent of the time this season, his fastball 31 percent and his curveball 20 percent. That's 58 percent sliders and curveballs, more than double the frequency of his previous career-high usage of those two pitches. It's made his entire repertoire better, including a fastball that used to get hit out of the ballpark too often.

When Blanton recorded two outs to end the seventh inning Wednesday and again Thursday, there wasn't nearly as much fanfare for the former Phillie as there was earlier in the week for Chase Utley. But these fans don't forget his contributions in 2008 and 2009 (12-8, 4.05 ERA), nor does he.

 

"It was pretty cool," Blanton said. "Once you're out there, it's just pitching. But it definitely felt familiar from being out there so many times. You know the environment. I think the first time you step on the field is pretty cool. Thinking back, winning the World Series, all the good players I played with here."

That stage of Blanton's career is over. So are his days as a starter. Unlike most starting pitchers who are moved to the bullpen, Blanton doesn't maintain the desire to pitch every fifth day. He's having success in this role and it's where he wants to stay.

"I think I spent my time as a starter. I think I've been there, done that," Blanton said. "There were points last year when I thought I could still start and still kind of wanted to do it. But I think more toward the end of the year and then definitely through this year, I realized that's a thing of the past. I had my time starting. Now it's kind of my second career and I've really enjoyed it. 

"I'm proud of what I did [starting]. A lot of people had better careers and a lot of people had worse careers. But I'm proud of what I did, I did it for a long time. I'm happy with where I'm at right now.

"Who knows how long this road will last, that's kind of the mentality I've taken — every game could be your last. I tried to tell myself all of last year and as much as I can this year to just enjoy every moment because you don't know when it's gonna be your last. I already thought I had my last moment and didn't."