SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – “Next Knuckler” Josh Booty got his first taste of the real thing Sunday.
Booty threw 28 pitches, about half knuckleballs, in the Diamondbacks’ “B” game against a team of Giants minor leaguers on Sunday morning. It was the first time Booty faced opposing hitters since winning the MLB Network’s reality-show competition that gave the winner a spot in D-backs spring training camp.
Booty had some control issues, giving up two runs on a hit, two walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball.
He called it a lot of fun but conceded it was a work in progress, saying that the first step was having more faith in the pitch that got him here.
“If I got behind in the count, I started aiming (the knuckleball) instead of letting it go, like I would in the bullpen,” the 37-year-old Booty said. “I’ve just got to trust it. If I walk ‘em, I walk ‘em. That’s the thing.”
Booty gave up a ground ball single into the hole between first and second on a fastball to the first batter. The next batter popped out before Booty walked the next two, one scoring on a passed ball and the other on a groundout. The second of his walks came on a 3-2 fastball.
“I have to be able to throw 3-2 knuckleballs and trust it. Don’t aim and let it go. Aiming is kind of (stupid),” he said.
“I have to get ahead (in the count) so when I throw a fastball it is a surprise. Every at-bat, that first pitch is so crucial. You get ahead with a first-pitch knuckleball … now you have them where you want them. You could throw a fastball, sneak one in there. Looks like 100. It’s just getting comfortable throwing it.”
Scouts timed Booty’s first fastball at 85 mph, and the rest topped out at 83.
Booty spent time with Toronto’s R.A. Dickey and other knuckleballers in getting tips on his new pitch, and he can take solace in the fact that Dickey gave up 11 runs in three innings the first time he threw the knuckler in a Class AAA game.
As athletic as Booty is, the speed of the game from the mound also was new to him, another reason to ease his immersion with a “B” game appearance.
“You want to throw strikes,” Booty said. “You want to get off to a good start. There’s a lot going on. These pitchers are used to that. I’m not really used to facing righty-lefty, the stretch and windup, getting behind or ahead, and what am I going to throw.”
Although Booty had never pitched, he was the Marlins’ first-round pick in 1994 as a shortstop and spent four seasons in the organization before leaving baseball to play football at LSU. He later was drafted by the NFL Seattle Seahawks and attended NFL training camps with the Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders.
Pitching coach Charles Nagy attended the “B” game.
“It knuckles. It’s just a matter of him commanding it,” Nagy said. “It’s huge for anybody who has never pitched on a mound in a game. It was a great opportunity in that environment, instead of sticking him on the mound in a stadium full of people. That’s progress. We’ll go from there.”
Catcher Tuffy Gosewisch also saw promising signs.
“There was definitely some movement,” he said. “Obviously some are better than others, but that’s every knuckleballer. I think he has a good one in there. He has to trust it. Just let it go.”
When Booty arrived Feb. 22, the D-backs said their goal was to work him into a spring training game. Booty is all for it. The Marlins technically hold the rights to Booty, their former draft pick, and would have the first option to sign him if he wants to play this season, even if it is in the minors.
“It was awfully fun, and I know I can only get better,” Booty said. “So that’s what I’m going to do.”