DETROIT – R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole have tried different approaches to avoid the knuckleballer’s mid-to-late game blips, from fastballs early on to changing speeds more regularly throughout his outing.
Some significant gains were made on his ragged April during May, but the consistency that the Toronto Blue Jays need from him isn’t there quite yet.
“Not as much lately but early on in the season it was like a big black cloud between the fifth and seventh inning,” says Thole. “I think for R.A., the key is to just pitch his game, and not get caught up in we should try something different, or we should do this, we should do that, instead of just trusting what his game is.”
Whether it was a lack of trust or just “a cranky body day” that led him to struggle, the dark clouds returned for Dickey on Wednesday night, a decent outing nearly undone when having just been given a 3-2 lead, he proceeded to load the bases with nobody out in the sixth inning.
Credit Aaron Loup’s clever relief work with saving the day, as he managed to escape the jam unscathed and chipped in a scoreless seventh as well to play in a pivotal role in the Blue Jays’ 8-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers, their second in a row over the AL Central leaders.
Adam Lind’s two-out, two-run double in the top of the sixth off Rick Porcello – against whom he was 2-for-14 in his career to that point – provided the key blow, but left little margin for error while the game still hung in the balance.
The Blue Jays only broke things open in the eighth, well after the Loup prevented things from slipping away. Props for the lefty came from all around.
“I was trying every trick I had, I mean really,” explains Dickey. “It was a day where I was trying to bounce them, I was trying to throw them high, I was trying to change speeds, I threw a couple of really slow ones, I threw fastballs, I threw a changeup in there and I was on a tight-rope all game, having to use everything in my arsenal. Some days it’s like that. Thankfully I minimized the damage in a couple of the innings and then Loup did that incredible thing in the sixth and that was really the turning point in the game.
“If they get a couple of runs there the momentum changes and it’s a whole different ballgame. He should get the win.”
The numbers are curious for Dickey, whose OPS against was .529 his first time through the batting order, .660 the second and .956 the third coming into Wednesday’s outing.
Also noteworthy is that with no runners on, opponents have an OPS of .577 against Dickey, while with men in scoring position that number spikes to .998.
“I think there could be an element of timing there, and seeing the knuckleball (in multiple at-bats),” says Thole. “His better outings when he has gotten past the sixth and seventh innings are when he’s changed speeds on the knuckleball and used the heater more. But you can’t put together a gameplan because you have to see how the game is going. You can’t just say we’re going to throw more fastballs here, we’re going to throw more changeups here because of X, Y, Z. You do that in the flow of the game.
“You could be like, a changeup could be good to this guy if we get two strikes. Next thing you know you get to two strikes and he looked like crap on knuckleballs – you’re not going to go to the changeup. You’re going to stick with the knuckleball, you’re going to live and die with that thing.”
Dickey did use his fastball and change speeds in this one, fluctuating between 83 m.p.h. at the high end and slowing down all the way to 62 at the bottom, to varying effect.
Miguel Cabrera pounded a first-pitch fastball over the wall in left for a solo shot in the first that erased Melky Cabrera’s solo drive in the top of the frame, while Ian Kinsler sent a Dickey knuckler over the wall in left in the third to put the Tigers up 2-1.
“With Cabrera, I started both hitters off before him 2-0, and I thought, ‘Well, he’s going to take until he gets a strike, that’s what good hitters do,’” said Dickey. “He saw it well and crushed it. That’s a roll of the dice there and I lost.”
The only clean inning from Dickey was a three-up, three-down fifth, as he allowed seven hits and four walks. A strong Tigers lineup deserves it’s due, but he hurt himself as well with the walks, two of them coming in the sixth when a shutdown inning was needed.
“I felt very fortunate to get out of it through five innings against that lineup just giving up two runs. It took Loup’s magic act to get that,” says Dickey. “We were fortunate, I almost blew it for all of us, but it’s fun to be on a team where you know if you can just keep it close, at some point it’s probably going to break open and it did again.”
Loup struck out pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez, got Rajai Davis on a pop up to the backstop and Kinsler on a soft flare to first to hold the 3-2 edge.
Asked if he was thinking strike out or double play against Martinez, Loup replies, “Really, either one.”
“Given the situation, you don’t want to give up a run, but being bases loaded, nobody out, you’ll take two outs and trade a run for it,” he says. “But definitely, if you can get the strikeout, it’s definitely what you would like to do to give yourself a chance to get the double play to get out of the inning. It ended up working.”
The Blue Jays pushed things out of reach in the eighth on a Cabrera RBI single, Lind’s run-scoring double and a Steve Tolleson fielder’s choice that scored Jose Bautista, and piled on further in the ninth on Bautista’s two-run double.
“We believe in one another, and maybe if they have a real good starting pitcher, it’s hard to continue that through the bullpen, to have two or three stud guys in the bullpen,” says Lind. “If pitchers leave pitches to hit, this lineup will hit them.”
The Blue Jays have certainly shown that through this torrid stretch of 23 wins in their last 30 outings, and Dickey was the beneficiary in this outing. His blips haven’t been as costly as they might be, and if he can clean those up and get a bit deeper into his outings, it will be a significant shot in the arm for a club that’s already surging.