R.A. Dickey has an imposter and he was lurking deep within the bowels of Rogers Centre Thursday night like a spy, trading secrets to the Houston Astros about the mystical ways of the knuckleball.
The international man of mystery in this case was Steve Sparks, himself a former Major League knuckleball practitioner who has gone over to the dark side since retiring in 2005, now working as a colour analyst on Astros radio baseball broadcasts.
After having to contend with the 98-mile-an-hour fastball that Toronto starter Brandon Morrow featured during Wednesday’s game, some of the Astros were a bit leery at the prospect of now having to confront Dickey.
For a while at least it was a pretty fair pitching duel that broke out in the finale of the three-game set, with the Astros (4-6) spoiling Toronto’s (5-5) hopes of its first sweep of the regular season with a 6-4 victory.
Dallas Keuchel notched the win for the Astros before 15,778 very silent fans, with the lefty stringing together seven quality innings of well-crafted work, allowing just one Toronto run off five hits while striking out six.
Colby Rasmus swatted his first home run of the year in the fifth inning, the only real damage the Blue Jays could inflict on Keuchel (1-1).
While Morrow serves up serious heat, Dickey’s knuckler will float up to the plate like a butterfly meandering through a summer garden. To a batter, you almost feel you can swing three times at the same pitch like in the old cartoon.
To try to get up to speed, so to speak, on Dickey’s dealings, the Astros engaged Sparks to throw a little knuckleball batting practice the player’s way at the indoor batting cage.
Kind of like eating the appetizer before tackling the main course.
“They just felt like seeing a couple rounds of it and making some adjustments would be a good thing,” Sparks said. “These are guys I’m around all the time so I’m happy to help.”
As Dickey had allowed just one lonely Houston hit (to Jason Castro) through the first four innings, one had to wonder about the effectiveness of Sparks’ tutoring.
But the Astros broke out in the fifth, beginning with a leadoff double by Marc Krauss, who homered off the Toronto pitcher when he last faced him last year.
Robbie Grossman then smacked his first home run of the season after Dickey fell behind 3-0, a sky-high bomb to right field, that put the Astros in front 2-0.
As far as trying to emulate Dickey in front of the Houston batters before the game, Sparks said that no two knuckleball pitchers really throw the same.
He said he was just trying to give the players a taste of what the ball looks like upon delivery.
“It’s just different seeing the ball out of the hand when it’s deadened like that,” he said. “Guys aren’t trying to throw downhill.
“You’re trying to stay behind the ball a long time so it comes in at a different angle.
“It’s almost like seeing the ball from a submarine pitcher. It’s going to go up a little bit before it goes down. And so it’s good for guys to see it and be able to make adjustments.”
After Rasmus’s blast cut the Houston lead to 2-1, Houston tagged on three more runs in the seventh, a rally that began with a double into the right field corner by Matt Dominguez.
A walk by Grossman was then followed by a three-run home run shot Dickey surrendered to Jonathan Villar that broke the game open.
Dickey was not around to start the eighth inning, his evening done after surrendering five Houston runs off six hits, including two home runs, while walking three and striking out four.
Esmil Rogers came into the game and promptly gave up a solo home run shot by Jason Castro. For the Toronto starter, his record is now 1-2 on the season, his ERA at 5.30.
Melky Cabrera had two of the Toronto hits, both doubles, to continue his torrid start.
The leftfielder has now collected at least one hit in every game this season, his first double in the first inning extending his hit streak to 10 games.
The Blue Jays staged a bit of a rally in the ninth, when pinch hitter Adam Lind doubled to left-centre off Josh Field that cut the Toronto lead to three with two out.
Cabrera came to the plate and his little squibber to the left side was fielded by Anthony Bass, the new Houston pitcher, whose throw to first base was high for an error.
This allowed Lind to come in from second to bring the score to 6-4 while Cabrera wound up at second.
The affair finally ended with Maicer Izturis grounding out to the pitcher.