Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was a catcher back when he was playing, mostly knocking around in the minor leagues in the New York Mets organization.
Before the Blue Jays raised the curtain Tuesday night on the first of a three-game set at Rogers Centre against the Baltimore Orioles, Gibbons was asked if he’d ever caught a knuckleball pitcher.
“Spring training, bullpen, Charlie Hough,” came the immediate response.
And although the moment occurred in a controlled setting, Gibbons recalled it as unpleasant, sort of like chewing gum and eating cheese puffs at the same time.
Times have not changed much for the manager, who has had to endure his share of unsettling moments when R.A. Dickey, the current knuckleballer and perceived ace of the Blue Jays staff, has toed the rubber.
Dickey perhaps deserved better Tuesday night, pitching into the seventh inning with the game tied in a ballgame that the Blue Jays (11-9) would ultimately win 9-3 over the Orioles (9-10), their American League East rival.
Brett Lawrie, who has not been hitting for average but still delivering in the crunch, came through with the decisive blow, a big three-run homer in the six-run eighth inning with the scored deadlocked at 3-3.
The third baseman is hitting just .135 on the year, but his 15 runs batted in lead the team. The home run was his fourth of the season.
When Lawrie came up, the Blue Jays had runners at first and second and nobody out, often a good spot to lay down a bun, especially in a tied ballgame.
Although that thought passed through his mind Gibbons said he made the decision to allow Lawrie to swing away.
“Brett’s something good waiting to happen,” Gibbons said afterward. “He’s bunted a couple of times on his own, but I like him swinging the bat.”
Melky Cabrera chimed in a bit later on in the inning with a three-run shot of his own for Toronto to break the game wide open.
The round-tripper was Cabrera’s fifth of the season and one of three three-run shots lifted the Blue Jays to victory.
Dickey would not factor into the decision, departing the game in the seventh inning with the game tied having surrendered three Baltimore runs off six hits and three walks.
The most damaging blow was a three-run home run that Dickey served up to Nelson Cruz in the sixth that lifted Baltimore in front 3-0.
Dickey has been consistently inconsistent this year, a trend the Blue Jays desperately need to correct if they hope to contend this season.
He came into the Baltimore game with a rather unsavory 1-3 record and an inflated 6.26 earned run average.
The source behind his struggle is easy to pinpoint; he’s been walking too many damn batters.
Whatever mastery Dickey held over the unpredictable pitch back in 2012 with the New York Mets, when he won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League with a 20-6 record, has largely vanished.
That year, Dickey averaged 2.1 walks per nine innings and 14.4 pitches per inning, the lowest total among all qualified NL pitchers.
Last season, his first in Toronto, Dickey’s nine-inning walk average grew to 2.8 and this season, through his first four games, it is a gaudy 5.9, the second-worst mark among all Major League pitchers.
Through his first four starts, Dickey has walked an A.L.-leading 15 batters in 23 innings.
He is also averaging an astronomical 18.3 pitches per inning, a pretty good indication that hitters are trying to wait him out.
It all poses just a bit of a conundrum to Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker, who can do little more than just shrug when it comes to the inner workings of a knuckle ball pitcher.
It is like asking a Model-T mechanic to tune up your Ferrari, and you know how far that is going to get you.
Early on against the Orioles, Dickey was cruising, his trademark knuckleball fluttering to the plate with the consistency of a paper airplane riding a stiff breeze.
It confounded a Baltimore lineup that entered the game as the No. 2 hitting squad in the A.L. as Dickey allowed just two hits and faced 17 batters through the first five innings, just two over the minimum.
After surrendering the home run to Cruz, Dickey was quickly picked up by Edwin Encarnacion.
A hitter of 36 home runs a year ago, Encarnacion had yet to stroke one this year through the first 19 games.
That slump ended abruptly in the bottom of the sixth when he crushed a three-run blast off Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez to knot the score and help save Dickey’s bacon.
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