MLB Insider: R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays trying not to knuckle under

Posted Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Top five Cardinals: Rangers to get a look at baseball’s best next weekend. Reds: Free-agent-to-be Shin-Soo Choo a potent leadoff man. Athletics: Oakland could pad AL West lead this week in Arlington. Red Sox: At full strength, Boston best of tight AL East. Braves: Early concern for Atlanta is struggles away from home. Bottom five Marlins: Miami was rocking Friday after MLB’s worst won 20th game. Astros: Six-game losing streak canceled out six-game winning streak. Mets: New York has a Miami problem, as in 3-8 against mighty Fish. Angels: Yes, they’ve had injury issues. But, yes, they’re a bad team. Cubs: Scott Feldman, Julio Borbon experiencing life in the cellar.

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The road to the 2012 National League Cy Young Award started at Rangers Ballpark in 2005, when R.A. Dickey was presented with a strong organizational belief that he couldn’t succeed as a major-league pitcher without a major overhaul.

Hello, knuckleball.

As anyone who has followed Dickey’s rise to mound stardom knows, there were about a thousand road bumps along the way, including six in his first big-league start as a knuckleballer.

The mental scarring still lingers from that infamous game in April 2006.

“You don’t forget tying the modern major-league record for most home runs given up in a game,” he said. “That was seven years ago. It is amazing. I wish it felt like seven years ago.”

Dickey finds himself facing a new challenge this season, his first with Toronto after the New York Mets shipped him and his shiny pitching hardware across the border.

He was part of the win-now building job orchestrated by Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who first scored Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in the Miami Marlins’ fire sale.

The Blue Jays were the darlings of many preseason prognosticators, who had them winning the American League East. But they woke up Saturday morning as the only team in the division below .500.

So the immediate goal for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993 is to level its record, get healthy and then see if there’s enough time left to overtake the other four East teams.

“Right now it’s just about surviving,” Dickey said. “Hopefully we can get to a place where we can really enjoy our season. It’s about trying to get back to .500. That’s probably the next benchmark. From there, maybe you can make a push.”

The Blue Jays have looked like world beaters against the Rangers, who are playing about as well as they did when Dickey was pitching with them from 2001 to that miserable start in 2006.

But their season has been a mirror image of Dickey’s — nagging injuries, inconsistencies and a failure to meet expectations.

Toronto has been without Reyes, the talented shortstop and leadoff hitter, since he tore up his left ankle April 13. He could start a rehab assignment Monday.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie also has a sprained left ankle and is in a walking boot. Right-hander Brandon Morrow is on his second stint on the disabled list, Johnson has made only six starts, and slugger Jose Bautista missed time in April when things quickly went south.

“It’s just been tough,” Dickey said. “But we’ve got the pieces in here to do something special.”

Back trouble early on and an achy knee had relegated Dickey to a 5-8 record with a 5.11 ERA before taking on a Rangers offense that was in the midst of one of its worst scoring funks in club history.

But he’s still standing and still pitching, which should surprise no one after he surprised everyone by showing up to his post-draft physical with the Rangers in 1996 without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and later by lingering through minor-league contracts and misperceptions about his ability to succeed.

“It’s just being competitive and not wanting to give in to the fact that you’re accepting what everyone else thinks you are,” Dickey said. “People want to label you your whole career. If you buy into that, it can really cripple you and stunt your growth.”

If he were that type of guy, Dickey could greet all those who have doubted him with his Cy Young Award in one hand and the $25 million contract extension that will keep him pitching through 2015 and possibly 2016 in the other.

Instead, he’s grateful for what he has, for being a better man after what he’s been through and for those who have helped him along the way.

“I’m not a self-made man by any stretch of the imagination,” said Dickey, whose autobiography is Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. “I have had coaches, a wife, people close to me who have poured into me in a way that has been transforming.

“If you want something bad enough, you really commit to it and believe that you’re going to achieve it and work your butt off to do it, there’s not a lot that could stand in your way.”

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

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