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Stiff back plagues Blue Jays’ ace R.A. Dickey ahead of Sunday start

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A Dickey looks down at the mound before the team trainer came out to speak to him in the sixth inning of their American League MLB baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Toronto April 18, 2013. Dickey did not come out to pitch the seventh.

FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS

R.A. Dickey, throwing the knuckleball slower with fewer strikes than on average last season, is uncertain of making his start on Sunday against the New York Yankees due to persistent upper-back stiffness.

"I think I'll be all right," Dickey said on Friday, without making a commitment.

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons sounded similarly optimistic: "We think R.A. will make the start. He's just like he was before his last start."

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On Tuesday in Toronto's 4-3 loss to the Orioles, Dickey (2-3, 4.66 ERA) pitched through tight muscles in his upper back, lasting six innings in cool weather in Baltimore. All four runs scored in one inning, as he made a season-high 118 pitches.

"I survived it, but I had to change speeds more than I usually do," Dickey said on Friday.

With the velocity on both his knuckleball and his fastball decreased slightly from his average last year, the question is whether the decline is due exclusively to his back. He's throwing the knuckleball at 75.7 mph this year against 77.2 mph last year, the fastball at 82.3 mph against 83.0 mph, according to fangraphs.com. He's also throwing fewer strikes this year than last – 62.6 per cent of his pitches, versus 68.9.

With a small sample size, especially given the back issue, those numbers could be irrelevant. Otherwise, the numbers of hits, runs, walks and strikeouts are remarkably similar to his April performance with the New York Mets last season.

"He is one of those guys who starts slow," said Henry Blanco, who has caught Dickey's past four starts, and also worked with him in 2010, with the Mets. "I don't think there is a concern about him. He had good movement on the knuckleball the last couple of starts."

On Friday, Dickey, 38, stood at the opening to the Blue Jays' clubhouse underneath Yankee Stadium, rubbing his back against a door frame, trying to work out the stiff muscles in his upper back. After the outing in Baltimore, Dickey explained that the condition caused him to change the release point of his knuckler, adversely affecting both his control and velocity. He walked five Orioles in that game, equalling the total of walks in his three previous starts (2, 2, 1).

The knuckleball is a tricky pitch to throw, and success is dependent on releasing the ball at the same point consistently. Dickey had explained that the release needs to be high in the motion, a difficult proposition when the upper back is complaining. One possible indication of his difficulty getting loose – 11 of 16 runs scored against him have come in the first two innings of the games.

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An oddity, if not a concern, is the .302 batting average that right-handed hitters have against Dickey, a right-hander. Left-handed hitters are averaging .214.

Gibbons noticed the Boston Red Sox in a 13-0 win on April 7, and the Orioles on Tuesday approached him differently than have other lineups.

"Some of the guys cut down on their swings," Gibbons said. "I thought it was kind of smart. I don't know if it makes it any easier [to hit against him], but I think you probably get less strikeouts and they were able to find some holes. I don't think they're being any more patient if the ball is in the strike zone, it's just that his command has been off a little, at times."

Batters swung at 31.5 per cent of Dickey's pitches outside the strike zone last year, while they're swinging at non-strikes only 21.8 per cent of the time in 2013, according to Bloomberg News. Yet, neither Dickey nor Blanco nor hitters can truly predict where the ball is going to end up.

Dickey is earning $5-million (all currency U.S.) this season in the last year of a deal with the Mets. The Blue Jays signed him to a $25-million extension in the off-season, the condition of a seven-player trade with New York in December.

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