Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey says he is on target for Opening Day, with the latest step an extended session in a minor league game with a Philadelphia Phillies squad Saturday.
The former Cy Young Award-winner and Erik Kratz, who looks to be his personal catcher this season, joined a squad of Toronto prospects against former NL MVP Ryan Howard and a supporting cast of young Phillies.
Dickey was happy with the 99-pitch outing, which featured some 60 strikes under searing sunshine on a field at the Phillies' training complex. He gave up two runs on six hits with two walks and two strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings as nearby palm trees swayed in a gentle breeze.
"I'm right on schedule," Dickey said of his spring training progress.
While Dickey pitched in Clearwater, the Jays lost 6-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte.
The minor league outing gave Dickey the chance for a longer workout while keeping him away from the Rays, whom he will pitch against Opening Day on March 31. It also allowed the Jays to give four other pitchers a runout against the Rays.
Dickey has two more spring outings scheduled, one against the Yankees and another against minor league opposition, before the regular season.
One will be another 100-pitch affair with Dickey using the remaining start "any way I want to use it."
Saturday's game drew a small crowd, who lazed on a modest set of stands on the third-base line or stood next to the wire fence round the field. While the Jays batted, Dickey sat in the visitors dugout, which consisted of a bench with a roof offering some cover from the sun, with a towel wrapped around his pitching arm.
Dickey, one of the more cerebral major leaguers, called the minor league contest "a great exercise."
"Obviously when you're facing the major league guys, there's probably an extra gear in there — especially if it's in front of a crowd. I mean, it's just natural that the adrenalin's going to be a factor. But it's a great mental exercise to come out here and execute your pitches regardless of the situation, surroundings, competition. I'm competing against myself more than those guys anyway."
Dickey retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced before getting into trouble in the fourth when he gave up a single and two doubles.
"I made a mistake pitch that scored two runs," he said.
The 39-year-old right-hander says he feels better prepared this season, compared to last year when training camp was interrupted by the World Baseball Classic.
"I'm going to take that into the season with me," he said. "That'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 you don't have when you're not as prepared. So I'm thankful for that."
His goal is to start this season the way he finished last year and the way his 2012 Cy Young NL season went, avoiding his 2013 slow start.
"Everything is kinds of working to that end. How can I get back to that?" he said. "Right now I feel like I'm on schedule and I feel good and my knuckleball's moving quite well right now. So we'll see. But it's always a work in progress. I'm always trying to learn about the knuckleball, how I can manipulate it a little bit differently. Maybe I can add a different bullet.
"Because I'm going through the AL East again this year. So although they didn't see the real me I feel like, especially early on in the season, I'm still looking for other weapons."
After going 20-6 with a 2.73 earned-run average with the Mets in 2012, Dickey was 14-13 with an ERA of 4.21 in 2013 with Toronto.
The Jays need solid seasons from starters Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow. Drew Hutchison is expected to be the fourth starter with competition continuing to fill the final spot in the rotation.
Toronto dodged a bullet Saturday when Kratz emerged unscathed after being hit at the hand while batting. He continued in the game and said later he was fine.