Baseball

Durham Bulls’ knuckleballer baffles batters

Pitcher Eddie Gamboa of Mexico's Venados de Mazatlan throws the ball during the first inning of the Caribbean Series baseball game against Venezuela's Tigres de Aragua, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on Feb. 7.
Pitcher Eddie Gamboa of Mexico's Venados de Mazatlan throws the ball during the first inning of the Caribbean Series baseball game against Venezuela's Tigres de Aragua, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on Feb. 7. AP

Carlos Sanchez looked helpless in the batter’s box against Durham Bulls pitcher Eddie Gamboa.

Sanchez spent most of last year in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, but he seemed baffled by the dips and twists of Gamboa’s knuckleball last month. The first one fluttered in for a strike; the second was too high, glancing off catcher Luke Maile’s glove and rolling to the backstop. Sanchez bunted the third one foul.

The fourth pitch was just as perplexing, coming off Gamboa’s fingertips with no spin, until it dove out of the strike zone in front of home plate.

Sanchez, who was batting .250 for the Charlotte Knights, made a feeble swing and struck out. He turned and strolled back to the dugout with a blank expression on his face. Gamboa stepped behind the mound, wiped sweat off his forehead and prepared to face his next victim. He didn’t celebrate.

“I don’t like to smile on the mound,” Gamboa said later, although he said he sometimes gets quiet pleasure from watching batters struggle to see the ball. “But yeah, there are times where it’s like, ‘Oh man, he looked really foolish on that swing.’ 

The 6-1, 215 Gamboa has made a lot of hitters look foolish since 2013, when he became one of baseball’s few practitioners of the knuckleball. At 31, he has never pitched from a major-league mound, but the knuckleball has taken him to heights he never reached as a conventional pitcher. And Gamboa believes it will still carry him to the major leagues.

Never mind that the pitch seems to have a mind of its own and has only been tamed by a handful of pitchers in baseball history. There are only two knuckleballers currently in the major leagues – R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays and Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox.

But when the knuckleball is mastered, it can be virtually unhittable. Coming off the pitcher’s fingertips (not his knuckles), it is slower than a fastball and has little or no rotation. The pitch makes up for its lack of speed with its unpredictability, with hitters clueless about where a pitch will end up.

“In the game, I don’t follow it at all,” Gamboa said. “I kind of look at a target and I throw, and then whatever happens, happens.”

That uncertainty is great for Gamboa but always a challenge for his catchers, who often have to drop to their knees to block the erratic pitches. When Gamboa was warming up prior to the game against the Knights, one pitch nearly hit Maile in the chest before he jerked his glove down to catch it in time.

Maile exhaled, lifted his mask and jokingly crossed himself before throwing the ball back to Gamboa.

“If you drop it, you drop it. It’s going to happen,” Maile said after the game. “But you just try and have fun with it – turn it into kind of a game within a game and try and do the best you can.”

Phil Niekro

Like most pitchers, Gamboa of Merced, Calif., started by throwing fastballs, sliders and changeups in the early years of his pro career after the Orioles drafted him in the 21st round in 2008. But three years ago, when his career was at a crossroads and his fastball velocity was slipping, he decided the knuckleball was his salvation.

While Gamboa was searching for a way to distinguish himself at spring training in 2013, he met Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who was there to work with another Baltimore Orioles pitcher but agreed to give Gamboa a look when a manager in the Orioles’ system mentioned he threw the pitch.

Gamboa had learned the knuckleball with his father when he was 12 years old and threw it occasionally to joke around for the next 16 years, but Niekro saw potential in him.

“He came over and threw about five or six and I said, ‘Holy moly. He’s got amazing knuckleballs,’ ” Niekro said.

Niekro alerted Orioles farm director Kent Qualls of his discovery and met with Orioles general manager Dan Duquette the next day to talk about Gamboa.

“[Duquette] said, ‘He’s been around, good pitcher, but I don’t know if he’s going to make it any higher than double-A or triple-A,” Niekro said. “He looked at Kent Qualls and said, ‘We’re going to make Gamboa a knuckleball pitcher, and Niekro’s going to work with him.’ And that’s how it started.”

A whole new ballgame

The recommendation rejuvenated Gamboa’s career. Knuckleballers are more durable than conventional pitchers because the slower pitch puts less stress on their throwing arms, so many do not hit their primes until well into their 30s.

I kind of look at a target and I throw, and then whatever happens, happens.

Durham Bulls pitcher Eddie Gamboa

Niekro pitched in 24 major-league seasons and retired at age 48. Dickey is in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation at age 41 and won the National League Cy Young award four years ago. Wright – who became close with Gamboa when they played against each other in the minor leagues – made his first American League All-Star team this year at 31.

Most hard-throwing pitchers start to fade around age 30, but as a knuckleballer, Gamboa’s best days may be ahead of him.

“Here I am being a 31-year-old rookie if I were to get to the big leagues,” he said. “It’s a second life in trying to live out your dream.”

Gamboa may still be a late bloomer, but it has not been a seamless transition since he began throwing the pitch. He started the 2014 season pitching well with the AAA Norfolk Tides, but was suspended for 50 games after failing a drug test that he said was due to a prescription medication he was taking without approval.

He has also struggled with control at times since converting to the knuckleball and led the International League with 84 walks last season. He had never walked more than 27 batters in a season as a conventional pitcher, and Niekro is concerned that his pupil may get discouraged too easily when his knuckleball gets wild, throwing more of the ordinary pitches that brought him success early in his career.

“I don’t know if he’s made that final transition to, ‘Now I am a knuckleball pitcher, and I’m throwing knuckleballs, knuckleballs, knuckleballs, and if I walk guys, I’m still throwing knuckleballs,’ ” Niekro said. “I told him one time I pitched against Pittsburgh, I might have walked 12 guys in one game and pitched a shutout, so don’t let the walks bother you that much.”

“I was ready”

Regardless of these obstacles, Gamboa got the call he always dreamed of in April 2015. He made it to the majors – for two days. Sporting a fresh Baltimore Orioles uniform, he watched his team beat the Blue Jays twice from the bullpen, but did not pitch.

He hasn’t made it back to the big leagues since.

“I didn’t get to pitch, but I wasn’t ready,” Gamboa said. “I tell people that, and people kind of look at me weird when I say that, but I don’t want to just get to the big leagues and have an inning or two. I want to be able to stay up there for a long time.”

Now, in the midst of his best year in AAA after signing with the Tampa Bay Rays and joining the Bulls in the offseason, Gamboa is as confident as ever he will get that chance soon.

He spent most of May on the disabled list due to an arm injury but has pitched well in several appearances since he was activated on June 2, highlighted by his masterful outing against the Knights. He allowed just one hit and one walk in three innings of work, throwing 25 of his 36 pitches for strikes. He was 4-3 with a 2.56 ERA going into Thursday’s games.

“When you’ve been dealing with an arm injury and not being able to have a feel for throwing the knuckleball, just to get back out there and get in a routine, I think it helps a lot to have a good feel for the pitch,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said after the game. “It’s been a little while since he’s come off the DL now, so he’s got a good feel for it.”

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Gamboa has been around long enough to know he can’t get caught up in the ups and downs of his signature pitch. He has been the Bulls’ best pitcher for the past month.

“There are going to be days when no one can touch it, no one can even catch it, and there are going to be days where there’s no way in heck you’re going to throw a strike with that knuckleball,” Gamboa said. “The rule that I’ve been taking with the knuckleball is just take the good with the bad. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m going out there giving it my very best.”

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