TORONTO, 29 July - Travis Blackley is right at home, thousands of miles away from where he was born and raised.
The southpaw has played in the Seattle Mariners organisation, been with the San Francisco Giants, played a season in Korea, and he came out of the bullpen for his hometown Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League this year.
But it is the Oakland Athletics that have given him a home.
Since he joined the A’s starting rotation on May 28, the club has gone 31-18. Through his nine starts this season, he is 3-2 with a 3.13 ERA in 54 2/3 innings with 11 walks to 37 strikeouts, while holding opponents to a .239 average.
Two turns in the rotation ago, the 29-year-old started the game that marked the beginning of seven consecutive wins for the surging Athletics. On Tuesday, he was credited with the sixth victory of that win streak, stifling Toronto Blue Jays batters for seven innings and notching a career-high eight strikeouts.
“It’s no different to anywhere else,” Blackley said of Oakland. “It is, but it isn’t. It’s the same game. I think when you get up here, sometimes when you’re young, I know when I was younger and I got up here for the first time I was just a little in awe of the place. The spreads were so nice, I probably ate more than I should have, put on a few pounds; didn’t work out.
“There’s just so much you can take for granted up here and I think this time around, I’m used to it a little bit. I’m just going about my daily business and my routine the same as I would in Triple-A or Korea, and it’s showing. I’m in a good rhythm and I’m pitching like I know I can.”
He’s also pitching the way that teammate and fellow Australian Grant Balfour knew that he could.
“He’s a guy that’s always had good stuff,” the native of Sydney said. “I think he’s just had a different career path to maybe a lot of other guys. He’s kind of been in Triple-A and gone to Asia and done it a little backwards. He got up here [to the major leagues] quick and then he just saw limited time.
“But he’s gotten back and you have to credit him for that. He’s done well and he’s still young enough to where he can still have a long, successful career.”
Baseball fans around the majors are beginning to notice just what Blackley can do as well. The Melbourne native is pleased that he’s been given a prolonged chance to prove what he always knew he was worth.
“I got a little better last year, pitching in Korea,” Blackley said. “I definitely learned some things. I learned how to keep pitch counts down; pitch to contact a little better. I think the stuff has always been there, it’s always been the same for the last year or two.
“I finally just got an extended opportunity to show what I could do and I’m taking advantage of that opportunity. I’m loving it. I think [my teammates] can tell. They feel at home with me pitching for them, instead of just being a short-term solution.”
After watching what happened in Oakland to fellow Aussies Luke Hughes and Rich Thompson, who were each signed by the A’s and then designated for assignment within days of each other, Blackley was quick to say that, “you never know what’s going to happen,” though he is incredibly optimistic.
The left-handed hurler believes that no matter how the rest of the season shakes out, what he’s already been able to accomplish will help him down the road.
“If I can stay consistent and keep giving the team a chance to win every time [I pitch], it opens up opportunities next year and the year after,” he said. “Hopefully I can make myself a pitcher that’s seen as someone who can pitch in the big leagues for a few years.
“If the A’s ever find that they don’t have a spot for me anymore than someone else would take me and I wouldn’t have to try out for the spot like I’ve had to in the past and be signed as someone who has a spot.”
While he’s been carving out a spot for himself with the Athletics, Blackley has also been offering up spots for his teammates in the ABL for the off-season.
“I’ve already had people emailing me telling me they want to come,” he said. “These are full-on Triple-A veteran guys that have had big-league time; they have personally messaged me about coming and wanting to play in Melbourne...These guys are jumping at the bit to come over there.
“It’s a chance to see Australia, which they probably wouldn’t have got, and then they get to brush up on their skills while they’re at it and maybe even learn a thing or two. They probably don’t think they’re going to learn anything when they’re on their way but they do.”
The lefty thinks that any of his clubhouse mates in Oakland would fit in perfectly with his teammates down under.
“This is almost like our Australian team with the characters we’ve got here,” Blackley said. “Obviously we’ve got Balf, another Australian, but some of the Americans [are like guys at home], especially [A’s left-hander] Dallas Braden. He could fit right in on an Australian team, no worries.
“In fact, he’s very interested in coming to play for the Melbourne Aces this year with me. I won’t be able to play too much until after Christmas but he’s had surgery and missed the whole year and he’s the kind of guy that would do it. He’s serious.”
There’s only one condition that Blackley will have to fulfill in order to get the man who threw a perfect game on Mother’s Day in 2009 out to Melbourne.
“He just always wanted to go,” Blackley said of Braden. “He’s a massive traveller. Last year he went with Brian Wilson over to Thailand and Indonesia and did that whole trip. He’s done Europe with him as well, the year before. He wants to do diving with great whites so he said, ‘I’ll come if you go great white diving with me,’ so I’m like, ‘Alright, I guess I’m getting in a shark cage this off-season.’”
Blackley believes that the ABL helped get him ready for this season overseas, and that it can be a valuable resource for other players as well.
“Any time you get to pitch against pretty good competition, that’s going to get you ready,” he said. “There are no slouchers in that league. It’s not like you could roll over teams. You have to prepare for the start and respect the hitter at the plate...and I feel like this next season is going to be even better. It’s going to be even stronger.”