BOSTON, Massachusetts - There are times over the course of a season when a team needs its ace starter to be a stopper.
For the Blue Jays the time was Wednesday and the ace was R.A. Dickey. He stepped up.
"I feel some responsibility as a stopper from time to time," said Dickey. "I feel like that's why one of the reasons Alex pursued me and wanted to make the trade because he felt like I could be a guy that could help stop streaks when they weren't going in our favour. It's not necessarily extra pressure but you do feel a real responsibility to be your best."
Consider the situation: Following a franchise record-tying 11-game win streak the Blue Jays traveled to Tropicana Field, where the worst always seems to happen, and promptly lost the first two games of a three-game set against the division rival Rays.
In stepped Dickey for an unusually early 12:10 afternoon start. 93 pitches and only two ground ball singles later, the Jays had won 3-0 and avoided the possibility of a lengthy losing skid.
"That's his job," said veteran Mark DeRosa. "That's his job. He's a number one, you know. We fully expected him to go out, maybe not throw a two-hit potential no-hitter the way he was rolling, but I have all the confidence in R.A. He knows, he knows, anybody who reads his post-game comments, this guy is thinking 10 days in advance. He knows what it takes and he's been there before and won a Cy Young."
The Jays have won 12 of 15 despite Thursday night's 7-4 loss to the Red Sox. While the club, for the most part, has received excellent starting pitching during the stretch, a clearly defined staff ace has yet to emerge.
Dickey is hesitant to discuss Wednesday's outing as a turning point in his season but his personal catcher, Josh Thole, who caught the knuckleballer's Cy Young 2012 season with the Mets, suggested it could be. Thole struggled to catch the knuckleball in Wednesday's pregame bullpen session. It was even more difficult in-game.
These are good signs.
"I mean that's what I remember," said Thole. "What we saw (Wednesday,) is what I remember. Every fifth day it was a challenge to go out there, warm him up, take him into a game. That's what I remember."
"I don't usually say this but you could tell in the bullpen," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "I kind of kept it to myself but I think Pat (Hentgen) knew as well. We were watching him warm up and you could see the action on the ball."
As a knuckleballer, Dickey often is left to his own devices. He can confide in Thole and bounce ideas off Walker but because they've never thrown the pitch, there is a limit to which they can offer advice.
As he does with all of his pitchers, Walker studies video of Dickey's work. He keeps a checklist with him, provided by Dickey, which details Dickey's mechanics. If Walker notices anything off kilter, even in the slightest, he provides Dickey with feedback.
"There are some things he does like a traditional pitcher," said Walker. "Anytime he gets out of whack his front side will open up a little too soon, he'll get underneath the ball a little too much and that ball will tend to stay up in the zone and take off on him. Like a traditional pitcher, when he stays closed long enough and gets his arm through the zone where it should be, you know out in front consistently, he gets the action that he's looking for."
Dickey often travels into the clubhouse in-between innings to watch video.
"So I can make an in-game adjustment," said Dickey. "But sometimes the differences are microscopic. It's the difference in an inch or two landing or an inch or two in my wrist position. I mean, that's what you're up against when you tackle becoming a knuckleball pitcher because you have to go through some things you don't have to go through as a conventional pitcher. That's just part of the territory."
Dickey spent most of the first two months pitching in pain. He had what can best be described as a strain on the right side of his upper back, pain he first felt in Kansas City in his third start of season.
Being a knuckleballer coming off a Cy Young award was both a blessing and a curse.
Throwing a knuckleball isn't as strenuous on the body so Dickey was able to pitch through the injury. Having been a conventional pitcher early in his career, Dickey says the pain would have sent the old him to the disabled list.
On the flip side, he's struggled to live up to lofty expectations. With an overall record of 7-8, an ERA of 4.72 and 41 walks – an unusually high number based on his standard – Dickey has heard the jeers from frustrated Blue Jays' fans and accepts them as a reality of the business he's chosen.
He, too, has been frustrated. Now, he's focused on building off Wednesday's start and continuing the correction of the bad mechanical habits he developed because of the pain in his neck.
"Sometimes it's tough, especially when you're thinking about trying to throw without pain," said Dickey. "When you're trying just to throw a ball and not have pain in your back, you know, you're distracted maybe from being able to be in the moment with your mechanic."
Now healthy, Dickey expects to be better in the season's second half. Recent starts in San Francisco and, of course, Wednesday in Tampa Bay suggest he's on the right track.
His next test won't be easy.
Dickey is scheduled to start Monday's Canada Day matinee, at home, versus the offensively potent Detroit Tigers.