Gam­boa knuck­le­ball’s new hope

National Post (Latest Edition) - - SPORTS - Tyler Kepner

• Phil Niekro was a 21- yearold pitcher in Class A when his man­ager, Red Murff, gave him a com­pli­ment that pro­pelled him to the Hall of Fame. If Niekro could con­trol his knuck­le­ball just a lit­tle bet­ter, Murff said, he would pitch in the big leagues.

That was in 1960. Niekro would pitch through 1987 and earn 318 vic­to­ries.

“That’s what re­ally got me go­ing, and that’s what I’m try­ing to con­vince Ed­die Gam­boa,” Niekro said by tele­phone. “It’s not a se­cond or third pitch. It’s your pitch. Ev­ery­thing comes off your knuck­le­ball, and he hasn’t got­ten to that yet, I don’t think.”

Gam­boa, 31, is a non­roster in­vi­tee of the Tampa Bay Rays who showed up Sun­day at Char­lotte Sports Park for the first day of work­outs for pitch­ers and catchers. He wears No. 73, be­fit­ting some­one with no ma­jor league ex­pe­ri­ence. Sort of.

In April, be­fore a week­end game at Cam­den Yards, the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles called Gam­boa to the ma­jors.

He rushed to the ball­park, ar­riv­ing in midgame and re­port­ing di­rectly to the bullpen. He spent two days on the ac­tive ros­ter but did not pitch. He wished he had, of course, but added that his knuck­ler might not have been ready.

Gam­boa’s brief pro­mo­tion could be the ex­tent of his ma­jor-league ca­reer. But he of­fers hope, at least, for the fu­ture of the ma­jor league knuck­le­baller, a species that seems to num­ber no more than four or five — but al­ways more than zero — at any given time.

“I told Ed­die, ‘ Lis­ten, you’ve got to let it hap­pen,’” said Char­lie Haeger, who threw knuck­lers for three teams and is now the Rays’ pitch­ing co- or­di­na­tor. “If you try to rush it, if you try to push this thing and don’t prop­erly get the process taken care of, you can be at a dis­ad­van­tage.

“Think about it: A reg­u­lar guy can get away with a 95-mile-an-hour pitch down the middle. We don’t get away with those very of­ten. The process is longer, but the ca­reer can ob­vi­ously be ex­tended with what we’re do­ing, too.”

R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only knuck­le­baller in a ma­jor- l eague start­ing ro­ta­tion. At 41, Dickey is the old­est player in the Amer­i­can League and the third old­est in the ma­jors, be­hind the New York Mets’ Bar­tolo Colon and Mi­ami’s Ichiro Suzuki, who are 42.

Be­cause throw­ing a knuck­le­ball does not en­gage the mus­cles that im­part spin on a ball, those who throw it tend to last much longer. Learn­ing the pitch re­sets a pitcher’s clock. Steven Wright, who has made 11 starts for Bos­ton in the past three sea­sons, con­verted to the knuck­le­ball five years ago while in the Cleve­land farm sys­tem. He is 31, and his ca­reer may just be start­ing.

“I re­mem­ber when I first started throw­ing it, Mark Shapiro told me, ‘ You’re the one guy where age is just a num­ber,’ ” Wright said, re­fer­ring to the Cleve­land In­di­ans’ pres­i­dent at the time. “‘ It doesn’t mat­ter. To us, you’re 21 again. You just need to grow with it. The more you throw it, the bet­ter feel you’ ll get for it, the more con­fi­dence you’ ll get with it, and we just want you to build off of that.’ ”

Con­fi­dence is an is­sue for Gam­boa, a fac­tor that has, so far, helped keep him from join­ing Dickey and Wright on ma­jor league mounds. For the Ori­oles’ Triple- A team last sea­son, Gam­boa walked 84 and struck out 79, with a 4.61 earned run av­er­age.

“De­press­ing, to say the least,” he said. “It was re­ally tough, be­cause I came from a ca­reer where walks were never an is­sue. I al­ways pitched to con­tact. To put peo­ple on base and give a free base, that was tough, phys­i­cally and men­tally.

“But I went to win­ter ball this off- sea­son, and I mixed it in with all my pitches. I was for­tu­nate things went re­ally well.”

FRANK GUNN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey is the only knuck­le­ball

pitcher in a start­ing ro­ta­tion in the ma­jors.

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