Wildcat World Champion: Joe Blanton
Part four of a six-part series.
Over the next six weeks, UKathletics.com will be showcasing six former Kentucky student-athletes who have gone on to win major championships in their respective professional sports throughout the past year. Each Thursday, a new player will be profiled.
Never before has Kentucky athletes reined as world champions in football, baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and Olympics concurrently until now. Being a Kentucky Wildcat has become synonymous with being a champion more so now than perhaps ever. The list of former Wildcats who have won a championship this year is simply staggering; gold medal winner in the Summer 2008 Olympics Tayshaun Prince, game-four starter for the World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies Joe Blanton, U.S. member of the 2008 winning Ryder Cup team J.B. Holmes, starting point-guard for the world-champion Boston Celtics Rajon Rondo, goalie for the Major League Soccer champion Columbus Crew's Andy Gruenebaum and quarterback for the 2008 NFL world-champion New York Giants Jared Lorenzen.
As Joe Blanton stood at the plate, few in the crowd of over 45,000 people expected the pitcher to do any offensive damage.
Blanton is a pitcher not a hitter.
His lifetime batting statistics were a measly 2 for 33 in the big leagues, his first hit was a bunt single against Livian Hernandez of the Washington Nationals and the second was a ground-ball single against Johan Santana of the New York Mets on his first day as a Philly, July 22, 2008.
It was 96 days and 79 games later, when in the bottom of the fifth in Game Four of the World Series, Blanton found himself ahead in the count as the 2-1 pitch came in from the Ray's Edwin Jackson.
In his third at-bat that night, after striking out and fouling out to first baseman Carlos Pena, No. 56 closed his eyes on the high fastball and heaved his 256 pounds forward, quickly turning and with a Ruthian blast tattooing the hardball over the left-field wall. In a moment history was made as a new Broad Street basher rounded the bases while the 50 foot Liberty Bell lit up marking Blanton as the first pitcher since Oakland's Ken Holtzman, hit a homerun in the in the third inning of Game 4 of the 1974 World Series.
"I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I make contact, that's about all I can really say about my technique," Blanton said. "I don't think I opened my eyes again until I went out and had to throw the first warm-up pitch in the next inning,"
It was Blanton's first homerun of this millennium.
By his own admission, he claims it was his first round tripper since graduating from Franklin-Simpson High School in Franklin, Ky., in 1999. It had been over 10 years since Blanton had his chance to tangle with opposing pitchers after hitting .344 with 36 RBI his senior year of high school.
“The two things that really stand out about him, when he was in high school was that he was a great competitor and he had a fantastic fastball,” Madison recalled. “You put those two things together and you have a pretty good prospect. He had a great arm.”
While at Kentucky from 2000-2002, he had no at-bats, the story was the same in the minor leagues and once he was drafted by Oakland in 2004, he was able to take full advantage of the designated-hitter rule in the American League.
“During my career at Kentucky, we were fortunate to have some great pitchers at UK,” former head coach Keith Madison said. “We weren't really surprised he led the SEC in strikeouts in 2002 because he was such a great competitor and like all really good pitchers, he had a mean streak in him. He was never afraid to pitch inside to someone where a lot of college pitchers are afraid to pitch inside because of the aluminum bat. The thing that really helped him while he was here at Kentucky was his ability to locate his pitches. He came here with a good curveball but while he was here he really learned how to throw that pitch. A lot of his strikeouts, when he pitched for us, came from his increasing ability to locate his fastball.”
Although his Herculean effort at the plate in Game Four of the 2008 World Series will be remembered for years to come by baseball fans everywhere, it is Blanton's presence on the mound in the Bluegrass state that has paid the way for his professional career.
“I think it really help lay a foundation. Joe came from Edmonson County which is a very rural area,” Madison said. “The competition in areas like that is not as good, most of the time, as it might be in places like Lexington. He needed a transition. As far as ability, he was probably good enough to sign out of high school. Coming to a great league like the SEC really helped him learn how to pitch to some great hitters. The level of competition and playing in some great stadiums where they have some big, tough crowds really helped him mature. It was really neat getting to recruit Joe because his dad and I both played on the same high school team. I would get really mad as I watched the World Series everytime they would say Joe was from Nashville, Tenn., because he grew up here in Kentucky. He is a Kentucky boy and we are very proud of him.”
In high school, under the tutelage of Greg Shelton, Blanton led the charge to put Franklin-Simpson as the state leader in strikeouts in 1999 with 427. It was the second time in his high school career that his high school led the state in strikeouts, after the Franklin-Simpson Wildcats led the state in 1997 with 333.
After arriving at the University of Kentucky to pitch for then-coach Keith Madison, Blanton was able to continue his dominance on the rubber. In his third and final season in a Kentucky Wildcat uniform, Blanton led the Southeastern Conference in strikeouts with 133, good enough for eighth in the entire NCAA.
“He made a great impact. We were very successful his freshman year, but we struggled in his sophomore and junior years. He was the anchor his last two years where he was on the same roster as Brandon Webb his freshman year, so he had some help that year. He had a lot of responsibility his last two years because we had a tough time with injuries and all of those things. Every time he had the ball in his hand we felt like we had a tremendous opportunity to win so he was a great asset to have around.”
Throughout his college career, Blanton had several highlights that Madison is quick to remember.
“It was his last start against Florida and he pitched so well. He had at least 12 strikeouts. He was dominating Florida and they had a great hitting team that year. I left him a little too long and everything that could go wrong went wrong, but until that point he just dominated that game. He really made Florida look like a Little League team that game.
Another game I remember was against Ball State in Joe's junior year. He was going against another guy that was projected to be a first-round draft pick. There must have been 30 pro scouts there that day and we won 1-0. It was one of the best games I have ever seen a player in a Wildcat uniform pitch and I have had 14 pitchers to go on and pitch professionally while I coached here. It made me really proud of him. He stepped up in a situation where it would have been easy to fold under the pressure because of all the scouts there. “
Selected by the Oakland A's during the first round of the 2002 Major League Baseball Draft, Blanton found quick success in the minor league ranks. In 2003, he finished second in the minor leagues in total strikeouts with 174 after pitching for the Single-A Kane County Cougars and Double-AA Midland Rockhounds.
During the 2004 season, while tossing for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, Blanton helped lead the River Cats to a Pacific Coast League Championship. In 176 innings, he struck out 143 batters for an 11-8 record, with 26 starts and a 4.19 ERA.
On Sept. 18, 2004, after proving himself as a high commodity on the mound, Blanton was called up for active duty on the Oakland roster. During the remaining 2004 season, Blanton made three appearances, pitching eight innings.
In five seasons with Oakland, Blanton proved to be a workhorse. In five seasons he pitched 752 2/3 with an astonishing 424 strikeouts. Twice in 2005 and 2007 he threw in over 200 innings, 201 1/3 and 230, respectively.
In July of 2008, Oakland decided to trade Blanton to the Philadelphia Phillies for then-second Phillies baseman Adrian Cardenas, pitcher Josh Outman and outfielder Matthew Spencer. It didn't take long for Blanton to record his first win with a Phillies uniform. In only his third start with Philadelphia, the St. Louis Cardinals became the unlucky victim of his low-90's fastball and a curveball that leaves the best in the game befuddled, winning the game with a final score of 2-1. It was the first sign for Philadelphia that they had a made a trade that would help them make a deep run in the post-season.
In Blanton's first postseason game in 2008, he went six innings, only allowing one run in the divisional series against the Brewers. In his second postseason outing, Blanton again went six innings, allowing two runs before leaving the game up 6-2, allowing the bullpen to finish the game and the win.
In Game Four of the World Series, Blanton got the nod for the start after already pitching a perfect post-season, going 2-0. After his fifth inning solo blast to center field, Blanton then had more hits than the two best Tampa Bay Rays hitters, their four-hole hitter Carlos Pena and their five-hole hitter Evan Longoria, who both were hitless in the series at that point. Blanton pitched six innings in Game Four, finishing with four hits, allowed two earned runs, two walks and seven strikeouts in the Philly 10-2 victory.
After the Game Four, it was Blanton's pitching that he was most excited about that night.
"That meant that I did the job," said Blanton. "The home run was great, but they don't pay me to hit home runs. They pay me to pitch. If I can go out there on a night when we score six and I can give up five or less runs and we win, that's all that matters."
Madison was just as stunned as the Philly nation When Blanton smacked Jackson's 2-1 offering over the left field wall.
“My niece got married that day and I had my entire family at my house during the game,” Madison recalled. “We were all in my den watching the game. When he hit that homerun my entire den exploded and I came out of my seat. I was so excited. I talked to his dad the next day and I asked him what it was like in the stadium when he hit the homerun. He told me when all the other Philly hitters were at the bat, the crowd was loud and there was a lot of electricity. When Joe came up to bat, the crowd sort of settled in and it was much quieter. His dad said it was so quiet he actually heard the crack of the bat and the crowd erupted. He said it was the most exciting thing he had ever seen.”
Blanton won all three games he pitched during the 2008 postseason run, finishing with 17 innings pitched, 18 strikeouts, two walks, a 3-0 record and a 3.18 ERA.
Most importantly, Blanton won a World Series Championship.