During spring training, when scouts, opponents and other observers talked about the Toronto Blue Jays' chances in the American League East, they said: On paper, the talent was there, if they could stay healthy.
Within the first three weeks of the season, shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes went down with an ankle injury, relief pitcher Sergio Santos landed on the disabled list with a triceps strain, third baseman Brett Lawrie missed 14 games with an abdominal injury, and right fielder Jose Bautista missed seven games and counting with ankle and back woes.
Along comes the series wrapper against Chicago White Sox on Thursday, with R.A. Dickey demonstrating his 2012 National League Cy Young Award form. It's the sixth inning of what would become a 3-1 victory, Dickey sailing along efficiently, in total command.
Suddenly, he winces and pulls up awkwardly on a pitch to Jeff Keppinger, and the Rogers Centre crowd goes silent.
A concerned scrum convenes on the mound, along with home-plate umpire Manny Gonzalez.
Dickey threw just one more pitch, Keppinger hitting a soft fly for an out to end the inning. The Blue Jays removed him "as a precautionary measure," owing to neck and back spasms.
The knuckleballer first felt the strain during the previous start last Saturday against Kansas City, and recovered well enough through the week to play Thursday.
"There was no reason to push it," Dickey said after the game. "We had a lead and progressively it had got a little bit worse through the game. I wanted to openly communicate about it."
The right-hander retired the first 11 White Sox batters, getting ahead in the count on 10 of them, and faced two batters over the minimum through his six innings (throwing only 64 pitches). He left with a 3-0 lead, and Casey Janssen closed out the 3-1 victory to split the four-game series.
"Gutsy performance," Jays manager John Gibbons said. "It had bothered him the last couple of days and we didn't know what we were going to get. It really started to tighten up on him."
With Henry Blanco catching, Dickey (2-2) allowed only two hits and a walk to the thoroughly flummoxed Sox.
The only hint of trouble occurred in the fourth inning, when Alex Rios got the first Chicago hit and moved to second on a wild pitch. Paul Konerko, who appeared to have shortened his stroke to counter the knuckleball, worked a walk before Dickey struck out Adam Dunn.
Rios would be the only runner to advance as far as second base against Dickey. His knuckleball breaking sharply with the roof of the Rogers Centre remaining closed, he struck out four of the first six batters.
In his first two starts of 2013, against Cleveland and Boston, respectively, both losses, Dickey allowed 10 runs on 15 hits and six walks. In his last two starts, both wins, Dickey allowed one run on seven hits and three walks.
"I knew I was getting close," he said. "It's getting warmer and the humidity in [the stadium] was up. I had a pretty good feel for it."
Gibbons and Dickey expressed cautious optimism he would be available for his next start, Tuesday in Baltimore.
The Blue Jays (6-9) employed speed to manufacture the lead.
Rajai Davis kicked off the first inning with a single, stole second and third, and scored on Edwin Encarnacion's two-out line-drive single.
In the fifth inning, Sox starter Chris Sale (1-2) hit Emilio Bonifacio in the planted right leg and, before making another pitch, threw a pick-off attempt down the first-base line. Bonifacio raced to third and later scored as Dunn booted a back-hand attempt of Munenori Kawasaki's grounder. Kawasaki later scored from first on Davis's double to the left-centre alley.