DUNEDIN, Florida – In one of his post-game scrums last summer, R.A. Dickey referred to his knuckleball as a "capricious animal," a phrase meant to describe the unpredictability, the figurative moodiness, of his strange pitch.
Erik Kratz was behind the plate to start Thursday's 7-5 win over the Phillies. He was catching Dickey for the first time in game action and afterward, could attest to his pitcher's apt terminology.
Asked how he thought he did on Day One, Kratz turned the tables.
"How did you think I did?"
He was told he did fine.
"Okay, well then I did fine," said Kratz. "It wasn't perfect. I had the anticipated anxiety that I thought I would."
Just how anxious was he?
"I caught myself not breathing a couple of times and everything like that."
Armed with a first baseman's glove rather than the oversized catcher's mitt preferred by most knuckleball catchers, Kratz understands he'll have to be a quick study in learning both the physical and mental requirements of the job.
"Just the idea of trying to relax, being out there, getting a different visual but I felt like it went very well," he said. "I felt like there is plenty of room for improvement but I think a lot of things I've seen in his bullpen sessions, it was good to see in the game. Good to see him be able to change speeds and everything like that."
Dickey laboured through the first inning, giving up a lead-off dunk single to Ben Revere. One out later, Brett Lawrie airmailed a throw to second on a Bobby Abreu chopper, putting Phillies on the corners. After Darin Ruf walked to load the bases, a Dickey knuckleball to Maikel Franco eluded Kratz for a passed ball which scored Revere from third.
It's not how you would think Kratz would prefer to have drawn it up. It's his first game catching Dickey, in the first inning and the first time with a runner on third and a knuckler gets by him.
But he was more than happy to make a mistake in a spring game. Passed balls are going to happen. The key is to not get psyched out; don't make the same mistake twice.
"You can say, okay, well, it was a passed ball, wild pitch, it was a tough one to get but you have to be ready for the next one," said Kratz. "I was proud of myself. I was happy about the way I was able to relax."
Dickey limits the in-game responsibility of his catcher to receiving his pitch. He calls his own game, communicating velocity to his catcher in ways he won't describe publicly. He's not going to tip his hand.
Dickey doesn't even want Kratz to form a hard target with his glove.
"It's probably better for the catcher and for me, for that matter, if he's just nice and relaxed," said Dickey. "I'm far enough along in my process where I can pick out a shin guard and hit a fastball. I don't need him to give me a target.
"Plus, if he's only giving a target on fastballs then everybody in the stadium is going to know that hey, if he gives you a target it's going to be a fastball and if he doesn't give you a target it's going to be a knuckleball so I just like him to be nice and relaxed back there, whatever gives him the best chance to consistently catch the ball."
Given the uncertainty over Dioner Navarro's ability to catch more than 100 games - since Navarro hasn't done so since 2009 - the Jays are looking for more offence from their second catcher. Kratz, with 18 home runs in a back-up role over the last two seasons with the Phillies, fits the bill.
Josh Thole, who caught Dickey and served as the back-up catcher after Henry Blanco was released last June, appears to be the odd man out.
"He's going to play a lot," said Gibbons. "We want to make sure he gets some playing time and then we'll see how it develops. Kratz is going to catch (Dickey) early on, see how that develops, and then go from there."
Dickey's knuckleball topped out at 73 miles per hour on Thursday. He struck out two Phillies over two innings, one on a 61-mile-per-hour knuckler and another at 63 miles per hour.
He wants his hard knuckleball at 77 by opening day, his floater at 65. Dickey says he's on target to achieve those radar gun readings, adding he's feeling much stronger than he did at the end of last February, when his knuckleball was topping out in the low-70s in early Grapefruit League action.
ENCARNACION HAPPY AT FIRST BASE
Edwin Encarnacion chuckled at the suggestion he wants to be, or has asked to be, a full-time designated hitter.
"No, whatever the manager wants to do I'm ready for it," said Encarnacion. "If I have to play every day at first, I'll play. If I have to play both, I'm ready for it."
Encarnacion played 79 games at first base last season. He served as the designated hitter on 55 occasions.
"I like to play DH sometimes because I have more time to go to the computer, watch the pitcher, watch the video," said Encarnacion. "When you play defence you don't have time to do that but for me, if I have to play first base, I don't have a problem with that."
Funny, Encarnacion's numbers last season were almost indistinguishable. As a first baseman, he compiled a .272/.367/.527 slash line with 19 home runs in 294 at-bats. As a DH: .270/.374/.530 and 13 home runs in 200 at-bats.
ROGERS A FATHER
Congratulations to Esmil Rogers, the proud father of a baby daughter.
Mom and little Elaina are in Denver and doing well.
Rogers was there for the birth, returned to Dunedin on Wednesday and pitched in Thursday's game, giving up two runs in one inning of work.