CLEARWATER, Fla. - Joe Blanton is a quiet guy. Real quiet. He says he's laid-back. But we'll call him quiet. Because, well, he isn't loud. In a clubhouse full of players who have no problem finding words - heck, one of his best friends on the team is Brett Myers - Blanton doesn't seem to mind blending into the background. Everything he does - carrying food from the meal room to the clubhouse, striding out onto the field, tying his shoes at his locker - he does with the same, laid-back mannerisms.
"Good luck getting a word out of him," pitching coach Rich Dubee said yesterday. "He's a man of very few words. He doesn't speak a whole lot. He lets his talking be done by his actions."
But don't mistake the lack of decibels for a lack of fire. Dubee will tell you that, Blanton will tell you that, and members of the Oakland Athletics - who 4 years ago watched Blanton get so enraged after misplaying a bunt against the Mariners that he demolished a bathroom in the dugout and accidentally locked himself inside - will most certainly tell you that.
"He has some fire," Athletics assistant general manager David Forst said. "You go back and look at the video. We got in a fight with Seattle at one point, and Joe sort of mixed it up with Ichiro. He doesn't like losing. He takes things very personally out on the mound."
This year, the Phillies hope Blanton's well-camouflaged fire will translate into a season reminiscent of the ones he turned in while establishing himself as one of the top pitchers in the Oakland system. The 28-year-old righthander will take the mound at 1 p.m. today in the team's spring debut against the Pirates (on the radio at WPHT (1210-AM) and WUBA (1480-AM) . It will be his first Grapefruit League game since the Phillies acquired him from the Athletics last July in exchange for prospects Josh Outman and Adrian Cardenas.
When Blanton made the Athletics' Opening Day roster in 2005, he quickly became one of the top young arms in the game, winning 12 games and posting a 3.53 ERA. Over the next two seasons, he solidified his reputation as a reliable innings eater with occasionally dominant stuff, winning 30 games; in 2007, he finished second in the AL with 230 innings.
"You can see it on the mound," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "He's grinding his teeth to keep it in. Early on, it affected him a little bit, but, as he matured, he found a way to keep it under control. The guy's a warrior. He's an absolute and total warrior between the lines. He and Tim Hudson are the two best competitors, as far as pitchers, we've ever had."
The Phillies were aware of that competitiveness when they acquired him after the All-Star break last season, but it took a while for them to reap its benefits. In Blanton's second start with the Phillies, manager Charlie Manuel pulled him from a game against the Braves in the third inning after he allowed two runs on three hits in the first two frames. With the trade deadline nearing and Blanton having allowed seven runs in his first eight innings with the team, there was some speculation that the Phillies would attempt to add another arm to salvage a run at the postseason.
"He had lost his sinker, he had lost his slider for quite a while; he mentioned to me beforehand," Dubee said. "When the ball isn't acting the way it should and you are not doing things you know you are capable of doing, sometimes you try to force the issue."
The Phillies, also aware he had been battling some tendinitis, stood pat, and Blanton rewarded their faith. He allowed only one run in his next 14 innings, including a sparkling seven-inning performance against the Pirates in which he allowed only one hit, while striking out seven. He finished the regular season on a tear, going 4-0 with a 3.73 ERA in his last 11 starts. Opponents hit just .234 with a .316 on-base percentage during that span. In the postseason, the Phillies won all three games he pitched, including Game 4 of the World Series, when he allowed two runs and struck out seven in six innings, while also hitting a home run in the fifth inning off the Rays' Edwin Jackson.
By the end of the season, Blanton had assimilated into the clubhouse, striking up a friendship with Myers and growing comfortable with his new surroundings. After he returned to his offseason home in Tennessee, people often approached him about his postseason heroics.
"I didn't hear anything about pitching," Blanton said. "Everyone would congratulate me, and then the next thing I would hear about was the home run. Occasionally I would get, 'Oh, and you pitched pretty good, too.' "
Despite the home run and a perfect season in sacrifice situations, the Phillies' focus is on Blanton's production on the mound. And they think he will prove this season just how beneficial last season's trade was.
"He's pitched some real good games for us," Manuel said. "Now, I think he's gotten used to our team. He's definitely more relaxed, he knows the guys, he's more comfortable, he likes to pitch and he came in good shape."
Just don't expect him to tell you about it. *
Daily News sports writer Paul Hagen contributed to this report.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.