ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The return of Jose Reyes was bound to provide the Toronto Blue Jays with an immediate and noticeable lift, but perhaps just as important Wednesday was the way R.A. Dickey recaptured his dominant, Cy Young form of 2012.
Dickey was more than just good in a 3-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, he was ace-like in throwing a two-hitter for the club’s first complete-game of the season.
“This was very important for us, the way Dickey threw,” said Edwin Encarnacion, whose solo shot in the ninth capped the scoring. “That’s what we always knew he can do, he can pitch like that, and the other piece is Reyes, too. We’ve been waiting for him, leading off, we’re very happy.”
From the moment Dickey took the Tropicana Field mound for his warm-up pitches to the Desmond Jennings grounder to third for the final out, his knuckleball was the ridiculous incarnation of the pitch it was last year, when an extra bit of velocity made it dart wildly and rendered it nearly untouchable.
The Rays didn’t collect a hit until there was one out in the fifth – on a weak chopper just under the glove of a ranging Reyes – and managed another single by Yunel Escobar in the sixth on a similar seeing-eye grounder.
An even better sign for Dickey – who last year threw a one-hitter with 12 strikeouts against the Rays while with the New York Mets – is how little solid contact was made off him, an issue for him as a back injury limited his effectiveness and forced some tweaks to his delivery he’s been steadily reworking.
"Mechanically, I try to think about going through a door frame without hitting the edges of the frame, and then that goes down to a shoebox as it gets closer to the plate," explained Dickey. "So, imagine it in the distance, it’s just a door frame that shrinks and I need every pitch to kind of be around that.
"It’s just been tough to do that the first couple of months for a couple of reasons, it feels better now, I’m not saying it’s going to be a complete-game shutout every time out, but I certainly think I have something to grow on."
Helping things would be more fine defence from Reyes, who stole a hit from Jennings in the first by ranging to his right to collect a grounder and firing across the diamond to get the speedy centre-fielder, and took away a base hit from Jose Molina in the eighth by tracking down his soft liner in short left.
That left ankle he sprained April 12 in Kansas City sure looked fine.
"I didn’t make any plays like that in the minors," Reyes said of the Jennings ball in the first. "This was the first time I went deep in the hole and made a throw like that, everything felt perfect."
Having pulled themselves back into the conversation with their recent surge, the Blue Jays can only hope that one star returning from injury, and another perhaps finding his way can push them over the top.
"That knuckleball was moving today, it was unbelievable," said Reyes. "That’s good to see, hopefully he can continue to pitch like that because we’re going to need it."
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Blue Jays (39-38) ended a two-game skid that followed their 11-game win streak, and improved to 16-6 in June before a crowd of 21,502 while ended a three-game win streak for the Rays (41-38).
"We needed a win here," said manager John Gibbons. "We had that nice streak, then we lost a couple in a tough place for us, so that was big heading on to Boston."
They open a four-game series against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday at Fenway Park, with Chien-Ming Wang (1-0. 2.18) taking on Jon Lester (7-4, 5.57).
LINEUP SHUFFLE: Manager John Gibbons opted to shift Melky Cabrera down into the fifth hole to clear the leadoff spot for Jose Reyes, and the move paid off in the fourth when his two-out single cashed in Jose Bautista with the game’s first run.
Solo home runs by Adam Lind in the sixth and Edwin Encarnacion provided some insurance for R.A. Dickey, and Gibbons for now plans to keep running out a batting order with Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Lind, Cabrera and Colby Rasmus in the top six spots.
"I like the way that’s played out," he said. "I like getting Eddie up there in the first inning every (game), so we’ll see how that rolls. And you can put Melky between Lindy and Rasmus (splitting the left-handed hitters). I really like the way that goes."
WHIFF: R.A. Dickey’s six strikeouts against the Rays were off his season-high of 10 against the San Francisco Giants on May 14, but just as telling about the pitch’s effectiveness was the one walk and 68 strikes in 93 pitches.
"What made it good was it was consistently in the strike zone," said Dickey. "I told you it would take some time to unlearn some bad habits that I had picked up trying to compensate for some earlier maladies," he explained. "It’s starting to take shape a little bit. Hopefully this will be a springboard for the next hundred innings."
Rays left-fielder Matt Joyce, 0-for-4 with a strikeout, was as befuddled by the knuckler as any of his teammates.
"Everybody knows what’s coming and you just never know what it’s going to do," he said. "You’re swinging and you might as well be swinging with your eyes closed because you’re swinging and praying it’s going to break into the bat, and obviously it didn’t break where we were swinging too much."
TIMING DOWN: Jose Reyes took an 0-for-4 at the plate in his first game back after missing 66 contests, but was on Roberto Hernandez from the outset, grounding twice to second, once to short, and lining out to left field.
"OK, I saw the ball good," Reyes said of his timing. "That’s going to come, that’s something I don’t worry about. I’m going (to the park) early and work on my swing and my first four ABs, at least I didn’t strikeout, I put the ball in play. When you put the ball in play something good is going to happen. It’s coming."
His teammates were glad to see him, and though the emotion of watching Munenori Kawasaki depart on option to triple-A Buffalo hurt, watching Reyes was an instant remedy.
"Of course we’re going to miss Kawa, he’s a fun guy, he’s a great player but there’s nothing we can do," said Edwin Encarnacion. "With Reyes, he has the same energy, he enjoys the game, he’s going to help out a lot."