R.A. Dickey knows how to play to the crowd.
The other day, he tweeted out a picture of himself as a 12-year-old, wearing a Blue Jays jersey in Little League during a season when his team won the Babe Ruth championship.
"Hopefully that will be a prelude of things to come," Dickey, 38, told the assembled media horde on Monday, the eve of his opening-day start against the Cleveland Indians.
If the Blue Jays hadn't sensed the great expectations during spring training in Dunedin, Fla., they certainly felt the hunger upon hitting the ground in Toronto. The Blue Jays last won the American League East and the World Series 20 years ago, in 1993, and fans are hungry for a winner in Toronto.
"I don't want to say it's out of control, but everywhere you go, it's amazing," says John Gibbons, the Blue Jays' manager.
Dickey, as though borrowing from an Academy Award acceptance speech, called the opening-day nod humbling due to the pedigree of his fellow pitchers in the starting rotation, citing each as worthy of the honour.
That rotation should challenge opposing hitters to rediscover their timing from game to game. Tuesday, they'll face Dickey, who used a unique 60- to 80-mile-an-hour knuckleball to win the National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets last season.
Wednesday, it's deliberate right-hander Brandon Morrow with his nasty 94-mph fastball, hard slider, curve and changeup.
Thursday, say hello to quick working left-hander Mark Buehrle, returning to the American League after a season in Miami with sharp control and the ability to change speeds with an 86-mph fastball, changeup, cutter, curve and slider.
One question facing Dickey is, can he replicate his dominance of 2012 in the AL East?
Also, how will the knuckleball behave in the domed Rogers Centre, with its roof closed on Tuesday?
"Same thoughts I had when I signed my first contract, and I had my first good year as a knuckleballer in 2010, you got all the demons that come with, can you do it again?" he said. "It's the same demons we all have, all our lives. In this particular sense, I feel like I've grown into the place where I know what to expect out of myself."
While the knuckleball is perceived as unpredictable, Dickey learned to move it up in the strike zone last season, rather than having it break down by routine. His strikeout ratio jumped to 8.86 per nine innings from 5.78 the year before. On Monday, he said the experimentation is over and the challenge is consistency.
"I've got my hands full with the knuckleball as is, and I'm just trying to refine that," he said. "You always discover new nuances about the pitch even from outing to outing. … It's one of the things that makes it fun to go to the park every day, because there's always a new discovery around the corner."
Dickey threw off the Rogers Centre mound on Sunday, and hinted broadly with a mischievous glint in his eye on Monday that the ball was breaking nicely. Tough as the pitch can be on hitters, it's a workout for the catcher. Gibbons named incumbent J.P. Arencibia as the starter over Henry Blanco, 41, who was signed effectively as Dickey's personal catcher. Arencibia worked with Dickey in the off-season, then caught him during the World Baseball Classic; the latter experience convinced both Dickey and the organization that Arencibia could handle the knuckler in game action.
So, back to 1993. Dickey, living in a Toronto suburb, said he appreciated being accepted as a member of the Canadian family. Dining at a restaurant on Sunday, he was approached politely by members of that family wanting to talk about the team's chances for a title.
"The thing I was most aware of was the response to that team," Dickey said. "I'm old enough to remember that, and what a special moment it seemed to be for baseball in general. A Canadian team succeeding in what is perceived to be an American sport, was a big deal. The hope for that, for not only this year but a few years to come, it's exciting to be part of that. That's the reason I'm here, to win a championship."
Cue the applause. After a spring training elongated by the WBC, finally it's game time.
Justin Masterson (11-15, 4.93) vs. R.A. Dickey (20-6, 2.73)
Ubaldo Jimenez (9-17, 5.40) vs. Brandon Morrow (10-7, 2.96)
Brett Myers (3-8, 3.31) vs. Mark Buehrle (13-13, 3.74)
All stats from 2012
Geddy Lee, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the band Rush, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch Tuesday. … Toronto and Cleveland opened the 2012 season with a 16-inning game, J.P. Arencibia hitting a three-run homer to break a 4-4 tie. … The Blue Jays have put third baseman Brett Lawrie on the 15-day disabled list. … In four opening days, designated hitter Adam Lind has gone 10-for-15 (.667) with a double, three homers and 10 RBIs. … Toronto is 10-5 in opening days at home.