CLEARWATER, Florida – Erik Kratz's friendship with R.A. Dickey, he who throws that strange knuckleball, is growing.
At 33, back with the Blue Jays organization and tasked with catching a pitch Dickey once described as a "capricious animal," Kratz is a veteran who is evolving under the bright Florida sun.
"It's a cool challenge, it really is," said Kratz of catching the knuckleball. "It's something that as any athlete, any competitor will say that the competition, the effort level is something that you're never going to be someone that says, 'I didn't quite give it all I had today,' but in a sense you have to kind of just relax and let the game come to you, which you have to do normally, but as a catcher you kind of have to have that energy."
Kratz is like any other ballplayer. He's been at this game for years and has developed habits that suit his game and have become second nature. Some of these habits are obvious, things you're taught the moment you strap on catcher's gear, like giving the pitcher a firm target. Throw up your glove as he enters his wind up. Will your battery mate to locate his pitch.
It doesn't work that way catching Dickey. The knuckleballer doesn't want a target. When Dickey is on his game, he has a good idea of where his pitch will end up, but it still can be unpredictable.
Kratz is still at the point where he's reminding himself to let his glove rest over his left knee in his crouch, even when Dickey throws his fastball. Kratz has to be consistent every pitch or the hitter could know what's coming.
It's a different mindset and he admits he finds it mentally taxing.
"That's something that as a catcher, I take pride in receiving the ball," he said, moving his left hand as if to put up a target. "I take pride in making the pitch look good. It's something that is a hard habit to break, but on the same hand, it's something I've got to be cognizant of that. I call fastball, normally I'm like, 'Hey, let's get it out there; whoops, maybe not' because I don't want to tip his pitches."
When you're tasked with catching the knuckleball, you have to set your ego aside.
"It's a part of my game that I feel is, not to sound conceited, but I feel like I'm pretty good at it," said Kratz of his receiving prowess behind the plate. "I feel like I'm really good at it. (Catching the knuckleball is) a challenge that is exciting and every time I go out there, kind of at the beginning I was like, jeez, now I'm like let's go out there and do it and see what I can get."
The battery-mates spend a lot of time together. Dickey says Kratz has "improved" at handling his pitch. The Blue Jays haven't publicly committed to Kratz as the second catcher behind Dioner Navarro, saying that the other alternative, Josh Thole, has an extensive history with Dickey and the club needs to see whether Kratz can do the job.
Navarro hasn't played in more than 89 games since 2009, making it likely the Jays will need their backup to play more often. Assuming that's the case, the club requires reasonable improvement over Thole's .175/.256/.242 slash line he posted last season. Kratz has hit 18 home runs in 375 at-bats over the last two seasons playing for the Phillies. He is a low batting average, low on-base percentage hitter but he at least is a threat to go deep.
Acquired from Philadelphia, along with left-handed pitcher Rob Rasmussen, for reliever Brad Lincoln on December 3, the former Blue Jays draft pick is preparing as if the job is his.
Kratz is using a first baseman's glove, instead of an oversized catcher's mitt, although, he may revert if he finds a prototype with more flexibility.
Each time he's catching Dickey in a bullpen session, he simulates game situations in his mind. Kratz will pretend there's a runner on third. If the knuckleball gets by him, chances are that run scores. It's not quite like live game action, but he's trying to put himself in the right frame of mind.
It's important not only for himself, Kratz believes, but also for his teammates. He needs to project the right aura. His is the only position each of his teammates can on the field see in front of them.
"If you have a bad energy catcher, you have a bad energy team, in my opinion," said Kratz. "The best teams that have guys that are high energy, you look at them and they're in every play and they're ready to go."
DICKEY WORKS IN TRIPLE-A GAME
While the Blue Jays lost a Grapefruit League game 6-3 to the Rays in Port Charlotte on Saturday, R.A. Dickey was pitching in a Triple-A game in Clearwater, against the Phillies' Lehigh Valley Ironpigs affiliate.
He logged 7 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits and two walks. Dickey struck out two hitters. He threw 100 pitches, 60 of which were strikes.
"It's a great mental exercise to come out here and execute your pitches regardless of the situation, surroundings, competition," said Dickey. "I'm competing against myself more than I am those guys, anyway, so it's a great exercise for me."
"I feel more ready," said Dickey. "Now, I'm going to take that into the season with me. It's no guarantee that things are going to be perfectly smooth, but at the same time the way that I feel brings a level of confidence with it that I don't have when you're not as prepared. And, yes, I do feel more ready."
Dickey has two more starts before he takes the mound on opening day, March 31, against the Rays in St. Petersburg. The first, in which he plans to throw another 100 pitches, will be in a minor-league game, likely on Friday. He will make a shorter start on March 26 versus the Yankees in Dunedin.