DUNEDIN, Florida – J.P. Arencibia wants to catch R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. He may eventually get his wish, though not necessarily on opening night, April 2, against Cleveland.
"I mean, he's not the one making out the lineup," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "We're going to put the best team out there with what works, or what we think is going to work. If it's not J.P. (catching Dickey), I don't think he'll have a big problem with that. I'd be surprised if he did."
Arencibia will have to earn the role. Dickey has trust built up with three other catchers in camp. Josh Thole served as the knuckleballer's personal catcher the last two seasons in New York, while Henry Blanco caught Dickey in seven games when he played for the Mets in 2010. Mike Nickeas is also in the picture this spring, if not on the 40-man roster.
Dickey's knuckleball bears little resemblance to the traditional floaters of Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and the Niekro brothers. The pitch "dances," sure, but does so initially on a straighter line and with considerable velocity behind it. If the pitcher cannot tell you where it will end up, neither can the catcher. At that point, it comes down to previous experience.
"I'm not saying it gets any easier but I can tell you that you get a little more confident," said Thole, whose 66 games catching Dickey is more than double the number of anyone else's. "It's not just catching (the knuckleball,) I mean you get guys on base and it changes the whole dynamic of (the game.")
Until he got used to Dickey's pitch, Thole would be mentally exhausted after catching one of the knuckleballer's outings.
"I think it's fun, I wouldn't look at it as a stress but you will be tired from the game," added Blanco. "You will be tired after the game because it takes a lot of concentration to try to follow (the knuckleball) and try to catch it."
The strain increases during crucial points in a game; those situations with runners on first and second when a passed ball or a wild pitch that could have been blocked advances an extra man into scoring position. Or that moment with a runner on third, up a run late in the game, a ball gets by the catcher and a lead is erased.
Gibbons says he sees his starting catcher playing 130 games in a season. Dickey will make 32 starts. Add those two numbers and you get 162, a full big league year. While playing time will not be divvied up along such strict mathematical lines, the manager will lean on Arencibia, even if he assigns a personal catcher to Dickey.
"J.P.'s got a ton of energy, you really can't wear him out," said Gibbons, who was in the Mets organization when Gary Carter logged a combined 265 games in 1985-86. "He wants to be out there and that's why he's going to have such a great career. I think he thrives on being out there and being in the middle of it. He's not going to run from adversity or when things get tough."
Entering his third full season, Arencibia has caught 216 games since 2011, a total lessened by a broken hand suffered last July, which cost him six weeks of playing time. Last week he took exception to the suggestion last year's trade rumours were legitimate, calling it "misinformation." He has the countenance of a player with something to prove.
He wants to be Dickey's guy and Arencibia's first chance to impress will be Monday. It is then he will catch the knuckleballer's two-inning start against the Red Sox.
- Arencibia, Brett Lawrie, Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis and Adam Lind are the regulars who will make the trip to Lakeland to play the Tigers on Saturday. Brandon Morrow will start and pitch one inning. Josh Thole will catch and Arencibia will be the designated hitter.
Manager John Gibbons will aim to get guys heading to the World Baseball Classic some extra at-bats in the DH role.
Brett Lawrie and Adam Loewen will be representing Canada.
Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio are playing for the Dominican Republic.
R.A. Dickey and J.P. Arencibia will leave to join up with Team USA early next month.
- One of Brett Lawrie's nicknames around the batting cage is "Norman," as in Bates, the protagonist in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho." Lawrie, as you know, is always moving and with boundless energy; he's fidgety. The name stuck because Lawrie had never heard of the Norman Bates character. Must be a generational thing.
- A veteran like Mark DeRosa understands he won't be getting a lot of playing time this season and manager John Gibbons says it's important a guy accepts his role.
"In the American League, where your bench guys don't necessarily get a lot of action, you can't have anybody on (the bench) that's disgruntled," said Gibbons. "They all want to play, don't get me wrong, but you don't want any trouble that way. They're still going to play and you have to have guys who are sitting for a long period of time who can go in and still produce."
- Hitting coach Chad Mottola, 41, has plenty of experience with baseball in Canada. Aside from playing 10 games with the Blue Jays late in the 2006 season, Mottola played for now-defunct Triple-A teams in Calgary (Florida's affiliate, in 2001) and Ottawa (Baltimore's affiliate, in 2004.) Mottola has worked his way up the Blue Jays coaching ladder, starting in low A-ball and spending the last three seasons with Triple-A Las Vegas.