ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The pitch is a no-spin magic trick. It zigs and zags from R.A. Dickey’s right hand seemingly with a life of its own, taunting hitters with its low-speed, high-difficulty approach.
When it’s on, it’s a 70-plus mph tease. When it’s dangerous, it’s hard to capture, too elusive to tame.
“I think video games are probably easier,” Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings said.
“You don’t know what it’s going to do,” Rays designated hitter Luke Scott said.
Added Rays manager Joe Maddon: “He was as sharp as he had been last year with the (New York) Mets.”
Wednesday’s numbers tell a story: Dickey struck out six batters in a two-hit, complete-game display in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 3-0 victory at Tropicana Field. Reaction from the Rays clubhouse tell one too: Dickey’s knuckleball, when on, is a floating jigsaw puzzle, an airborne enigma.
“Some days, guys throw it better than others,” said Scott, who went 0 for 3. “Some days, you have better swings than others. It’s the same thing with pitching.”
Dickey put on quite a display of pitching Wednesday. He earned his sixth career shutout and 10th complete game. He threw just 93 pitches, the fewest needed in a complete game for him.
Dickey’s nine-inning masterpiece was the first for a Blue Jays starter this season. Not since right-hander A.J. Burnett threw 92 pitches in a six-hit shutout of the Washington Nationals on June 27, 2006, had a Toronto pitcher thrown fewer pitches in a nine-inning, complete-game effort.
It was clear Dickey had his best stuff early. He began with 4 1/3 perfect innings, before Rays first baseman James Loney smacked a single to left field past a diving Jose Reyes.
The key to Dickey’s day: Keep the knuckleball in the strike zone. Keep its movement sharp. Keep the Rays guessing, flailing against an optical illusion.
Mission accomplished on all accounts.
“What made it good was it was consistently in the strike zone,” Dickey said. “I told you it would take some time to un-learn some bad habits that I had picked up trying to compensate for some earlier maladies. It’s starting to take shape a little bit. Hopefully, this will be a springboard for the next hundred innings.”
It could be. At the least, his performance Wednesday continued his strong June: Dickey improved to 7-8 this season, his third victory in his last four decisions. His ERA has dropped from 5.18 after a loss to the Atlanta Braves on May 30 to 4.72.
The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner’s Toronto transition has taken some time. He began 2-5 with a 5.36 ERA after a loss to the Seattle Mariners on May 4, far from the form he showed in earning a 20-6 record with a 2.73 ERA last season.
On Wednesday, however, everything worked for him: Speed, location, efficiency. This was vintage Dickey. Jennings drew a four-pitch walk in the seventh, Dickey’s lone walk of the day, a possible glimmer of hope for the Rays. Still, Tampa Bay’s threat was soon dashed: Ben Zobrist popped out in foul territory, Evan Longoria struck out swinging and Loney flew out to left field.
“The knuckleball was harder today consistently,” Maddon said. “He was able to elevate with it when he wanted. … When a guy with that kind of stuff is getting ahead of hitters, it makes it even more difficult.”
Tampa Bay knows the feeling. On June 13, 2012, Dickey outdueled David Price by allowing just one hit on a complete-game victory at Tropicana Field. In two previous starts against the Rays this season, Dickey had mixed results; he went 1-0 but allowed four earned runs, nine hits and walked nine.
Toronto manager John Gibbons called Dickey “tremendous.” Maddon considered his team’s play to be good enough to win on most days. Wednesday, however, was a case when one pitcher who’s no stranger to success outperformed another (right-hander Roberto Hernandez) with flashes of his 2012 excellence.
“You always know it’s going to be tough from the beginning,” Jennings said. “It’s a knuckleball. You see a knuckleball once every so often. Then a knuckleball like that, it’s pretty tough. It was just on.”
When it’s working, hitters beware. On this afternoon, Dickey’s knuckleball was a tease never tamed.