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Ferguson: Looking for the next class of knuckleballers

Scott Ferguson
11/29/2013 11:54:12 AM
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In football, the straight on kicker is long gone and there are no more drop kicks.

In hockey, there is no more rover and the players don't go without helmets and masks.

But in baseball, some things refuse to die.

This past season, the Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey was the only full-time knuckleball pitcher in the majors. His knuckler is more of a hybrid, thrown harder than the traditional floater of the likes of Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough.

I often wondered that when the Jays aquired Dickey in the offseason last year, if he would eventually be the last ever to throw the storied pitch in the majors.

Maybe not. The Red Sox have a knuckball pitcher in their system in 29-year-old right-hander Steven Wright. He made the conversion to throwing the knuckleball in 2011 and made it to the BoSox this past season with mixed success. On Aug. 6, his catcher Ryan Lavarnway was charged with four passed balls in one inning, tying the Major League record.

The first time it happened was in 1954, when Ray Katt was catching Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, the second when ex-Blue Jay Gino Petralli - then of the Rangers - was catching yet another knuckleballer in Charlie Hough.

And there's another would-be knuckler. Kevin Pucetas - a 29-year-old in the Texas organization - has bounced around a bit. He was drafted in the 17th round of the June draft in 2006. He showed enough promise to pitch in the  All-Star Futures game in 2008.

However, by October of 2010, he was dealt to the Royals as the player to be named later in the Jose Guillen deal. He was released by K.C. in 2011 and signed by Washington. Things didn't work out with the Nationals either and in January of this year, he was signed to a minor league deal by Texas.

Pucetas pitched for Frisco in the Double "A" Texas League this season and didn't really blow anyone away with his stuff. After the season, to keep playing the sport he loved, he agreed to try and become a knuckleballer.

He made seven starts in the Dominican Winter League and went 3-1 with a 4.86 ERA. However, something seemed to click in his final four outings. He went 22 2/3 innings and shaved his ERA down to 2.78. He gave up 13 hits, struck out 14 and walked only three.

The Dominican team wanted him to stay longer because he was pitching so well, but as Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News reported, the Rangers called him back stateside because they wanted him to be well-rested for spring training. So keep that name in mind come February - Kevin Pucetas of the Texas Rangers. Who knows, maybe he'll follow the path that Dickey and so many other blazed before him.
 
Three Ex-Blue Jays were also in the news this past week. Chris Woodward, who was drafted in 54th round by the Blue Jays in 2004, was named infield coach at Seattle. Chris spent parts of seven seasons with the Blue Jays as a "Jack of all Trades" utilityman and spent 12 years in the majors in total.

Darnell Coles spent 14 years in the bigs and was with the Blue Jays for two seasons, including 1993, when he was a key bat of the bench for the team that won a second straight World Series. Darnell had just been promoted by the Brewers to be manager of their Triple "A" Nashville farm club, but opted out to become an assistant hitting coach with the Detroit Tigers with new skipper Brad Ausmus.

The third former Blue Jay in the news was Ted Lilly, who retired this week at age 37 and battled what had become chronic neck problems. The lefty came to the Blue Jays in one of J.P. Ricciardi's better deals back on November of 2003. The Jays sent outfielder Bob Kielty to Oakland to get him and from 2004 through 2006, Lilly went 37-34 for the Jays and ate a lot of innings.

Unfortunately, he became better known in Toronto for his in-game run-in with skipper John Gibbons, when he balked at being taken out of the game while he was in the process of blowing a huge lead. Both men have put that behind them now.

Lilly was traded five times over his career and is also one of those who was an Expo and a Blue Jay. He put together a career record of 130-113 with a 4.14 ERA. He didn't want to retire and was actually trying to pitch in the Venezuelan Winter League when he realized his body just couldn't carry him anymore.
 
Now on to other matters - the Winter Meetings start Dec. 9, a week from Monday in Orlando. Can't wait!




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