TORONTO — Even on good days right now for the Toronto Blue Jays, there always seems to be a caveat lurking somewhere nearby.
That was certainly the case in Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox, a gritty and important win that salvaged a split of their four-game set, as R.A. Dickey sliced his way through six innings until neck and back spasms forced him from the contest after just 64 pitches.
Dickey experienced some tightness radiating down from his neck between the spine and right shoulder blade in Kansas City last weekend while beating the Royals, and there was doubt over whether he’d start at all in this one. Early on he was fine but the area seized up more and more as things progressed, the ace wincing on a strikeout pitch to Dewayne Wise for the second out of the sixth inning.
He remained in the game to retire Jeff Keppinger, and that was that.
“I had a knuckleball tonight where I would have thrown a complete game, so it was unfortunate it acted up on me,” lamented Dickey. “I think it’s precautionary. There’s no reason to push it, we had a lead, it had progressively gotten a little bit worse over the course of the game … hopefully we can get ahead of it so it won’t be an issue.”
Whether or not it becomes an issue marred an otherwise steadying performance, and as the Blue Jays are well aware, muscle-related issues settle at their own pace.
Consider that Jose Bautista’s absence due to back spasms hit four games, and Brett Lawrie’s mild oblique strain in the spring required a six-week recovery, so manager John Gibbons’ squad could use some good fortune for their knuckleballer on this one.
“We’ll see how everything develops over the next couple of days,” he said. “We tried to be optimistic, we thought Jose might be a couple of days, it’s gone a little bit longer so you never know. (Dickey) talked to the doctors, everybody back there, they don’t feel it’s anything serious. …
“You’ve got to calm him down, no question about that, but he’s a tough guy, I’m sure we’ll see him in five days.”
What would make any potential Dickey absence all the more painful is that he was in full Cy Young form against the White Sox, his knuckleball dancing through the strike zone, mesmerizing opponents. He retired the first 11 batters of the game, a run broken up Alex Rios’s two-out single, and allowed just one other hit and a walk while striking out seven.
Equally impressive was his efficiency, and at only 64 pitches was on pace to throw the club’s first complete game of the year. To sum it up tidily, he was the guy from whom they traded top prospects Travis d’Arnaud — who broke his foot Wednesday night — and Noah Syndergaard.
“I had a good feel for it,” Dickey said of what he called his best knuckleball of the year. “I felt like my mechanic was very repeatable and I was in the strike zone all night long. It was something to build on, for sure.”
Well, at least if the spasms ease.
Already grinding with Bautista day-to-day (Gibbons said before the game that the slugger is “pretty close” to a return), Jose Reyes out until the all-star break with a sprained ankle, and set-up man Sergio Santos on the disabled list with a triceps strain (an MRI showed no structural damage, he won’t throw for 10 days before being re-evaluated), the Blue Jays can’t afford attrition to their rotation just as it’s stabilizing.
Dickey, touched for four runs on opening day and then rocked for seven runs over 4.2 innings in his second home start, found his level last weekend at Kansas City when he beat the Royals and brought his success to the dome, where he was getting more movement than anticipated on his knuckler.
He made some slight mechanical tweaks before his previous outing, and those changes translated even better on Thursday.
“It does move a lot here, it’s a little bit different than when you go outside, but it still moves there anyway. I don’t really know where it’s going to go sometimes, that’s the point,” catcher Henry Blanco said before the game. “He’s got the first win out of the way. I think everything is going to be different from this point on.”
Also different on this night was the offence eked out by another makeshift lineup against lefty Chris Sale, who was dominant but killed by paper cuts.
Rajai Davis was in the middle of that, singling to open the first, stealing second and third and then coming around on Edwin Encarnacion’s base hit.
In the fifth Emilio Bonifacio was hit by a pitch to open the frame, advanced to third on Sale’s errant pickoff throw and scored on Munenori Kawasaki’s chopper to first booted by Adam Dunn. Davis then doubled on the ninth pitch of his at-bat against Sale to bring home Kawasaki and make it 3-0.
“That’s the game we have to play right now,” said Bonifacio. “We’re not scoring a lot of runs so we have to play the small game. That’s part of our game, working the count so the big guys see better pitches.”
They were exactly the type of at-bats Gibbons was looking for.
“Sometimes you just have to change your approach a little bit, you get down in the count, just shoot the ball up the middle or something like that, cut down your swing a little bit,” he said before the game. “Your guys in the middle, that’s a little different, those guys are paid to swing it, to hit home runs, but your table-setters, those are the guys you want putting the ball in play and making something happen.”
Plenty did happen, and the final result for the Blue Jays was good. The victory certainly loosened up the clubhouse, but loosening up the muscles of up a couple of their key players may not be that easy.