TORONTO – The Blue Jays are 16-24 and just one regular who started Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants was batting over .250. Pretty easy to see why they’re last in the American League East.
They’ve had all kinds of problems at the plate but they’ve also had plenty of trouble on the mound. Their starting rotation is a mess, with Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ both on the disabled list and Ricky Romero toiling with the Bisons. Mark Buehrle has one win and a 6.19 earned-run average.
But a key point to all the winter optimism was they had traded with the Mets for a Cy Young Award winner. But where has R.A. Dickey, circa 2012, and his dancing knuckleball gone?
Dickey took the mound Tuesday at 2-5, 5.06 in eight starts. He left it following a strikeout to end the sixth, pumping his fist after his season-high 10th whiff and getting a standing ovation from more than 31,000 Rogers Centre fans. The Blue Jays won, 10-6, and Dickey felt a lot more like himself.
“You just feel like it’s about time that you’re getting the swings and misses you’re accustomed to getting and you’re ahead of hitters the way you normally are,” Dickey said of his outward emotion. “I have not been as efficient as I’m accustomed to being with my pitch counts. I’ve been behind hitters a lot and not feeling the knuckleball.”
Dickey has had several issues this year. Neck and back soreness have haunted his delivery and cut back on his velocity. Yes, it’s a knuckleball but Dickey has been known for throwing one of the harder ones, in the mid-70s. And his fastball was in the mid-80s. Those numbers have dropped from 3 to 5 mph and that has made a major difference.
Dickey found that extra oomph again Tuesday because he said he’s feeling healthier. It kind of mirrors his team. The Blue Jays bolted to a 6-0 lead in the first off Barry Zito, piled up a season-high 18 hits and have their second three-game winning streak of the season. They’re 6-3 in their last nine and have collected 25 runs and 38 hits in three games since getting one-hit Friday in Boston by Jon Lester.
“The offensive output was great,” Dickey said. “It’s great to see a lot of guys get involved. It was a real community win tonight and it can be fun when that happens.”
Dickey had one of his best innings as a Blue Jay in the sixth. Hunter Pence led off with a double – but it came two pitches after he swung wildly and sent his bat helicoptering 15 rows over the third-base dugout.
It was a sign how much Dickey’s ball was moving. Brandon Belt, Gregor Blanco and Nick Noonan followed with strikeouts and Dickey clenched his fist in celebration.
Prior to the game, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos pretty much called a breakout outing by Dickey – even though the 38-year-old’s last two trips to the mound resulted in a seven-run meltdown against Seattle and a five-walk outing in a loss at Tampa Bay.
“Prior to the Seattle outing, he had a 2.84 ERA in four starts and we just weren’t scoring any runs for him,” Anthopoulos said. “He had pitched really well and continued to give us innings. Seattle was obviously a bad outing. Tampa was solid but not as sharp as he can be. You don’t expect him to walk five. I’m not concerned.
“I think R.A. is going to get on track, pitch really well and be able to provide a lot of innings for us.”
Last year Dickey averaged 14.4 pitches per inning, the lowest rate in baseball. That number was 16.7 this year and it was 19.2 on Tuesday in a 115-pitch outing. So he’s still got work to do.
There were plenty of rumblings in New York about Dickey taking a little too much of the focus on to himself with his revealing autobiography, with his climb up Mount Kilimanjaro and with last winter’s trip to India to visit a Christian missionary group that fights sex slavery.
You don’t hear similar chatter around here – yet. But Dickey spent spring training getting followed by a crew from “60 Minutes” and has been profiled in the New Yorker. Just Monday, Dickey was awarded an honorary doctorate of Sacred Letters from Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto’s Anglican theological school.
“I gotta say the way the Blue Jays have been playing early on this year, it’s nice to come to a place that abounds with grace,” Dickey said during his acceptance speech, drawing big chuckles from the crowd.
All the outside attention is fine, so long as Dickey is the ace he needs to be. He hasn’t been so far and it’s no coincidence where the Blue Jays are in the standings. More nights like Tuesday will get both Dickey and his team back to their spring billing.
“I certainly think it can be a jumping-off point for us,” Dickey said. “But we’ve tried to take the mentality of just win today. Don’t try to get eight games back in one night and that’s what we’re going to try to stick to going forward.”