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Out of Right Field: The trouble with the knuckleball

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright delivers during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park in Boston, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Charles Krupa / AP)
Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright delivers during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park in Boston, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Charles Krupa / AP)

Kyle Seager was asked before Thursday’s series opener against the Boston Red Sox about what it’s like to face a knuckleball pitcher.

A look of horror crossed the face of the Seattle Mariners’ third baseman.

“Is that tonight?” Seager asked.

When told the Mariners wouldn’t be facing Steven Wright until Saturday, Seager exhaled.

“Wow, don’t scare me like that,” said Seager, who could be excused for losing track as his wife is expecting their third child.

Send a hitter up to face a pitcher that throws 100 mph and he’ll show no fear. But against a knuckler that’s slower than the speed limit on I-90?

It’s a pitch that can make even the best of hitters look foolish (not to mention the catcher, who often wears a mitt the size of a waffle iron in an attempt to catch it). It dips and darts so much, neither the hitter, catcher, umpire nor even the pitcher know exactly where it’s going.

“It’s just a difficult pitch, one you don’t see that often,” said Seager, who has faced knuckleballers Wright, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield since coming to the majors in 2011. “They all throw it a little different it goes all over the place. It can be fun, you just have to laugh at it a little bit.”

Mariners first baseman Ryon Healy, whose locker is next to Seager’s in the home clubhouse at Safeco Field, said he got his first major-league hit off Dickey.

“My hitting coach said don’t worry about your approach,” said Healy, who was with the Oakland Athletics at the time. “Just swing and hope it’s in the strike zone.”

Wright entered Saturday’s start, his third of the season, having not allowed a run in his previous 22 2/3 innings, the longest active streak in the majors.

“The thing with knuckleballs is people think you throw just one knuckleball, but the thing is, they’re big-league hitters,” Wright said. “The biggest thing is timing, and a pitcher’s got to disrupt their timing. So, for me, especially as a starter … I really just try to go back and forth with the velocity.”

Pitching

Last season, the concern was Mariners left-hander Marco Gonzales was unable to pitch deep into games, often getting pulled after getting through the opponents’ lineup twice.

Now some are worried the former Gonzaga standout is throwing too many innings.

Gonzales, who missed the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is on pace to pitch about 185 innings. His career high is 156 2/3 while with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization in 2014.

“I’m not concerned right now,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It goes from, ‘You never let him go deep into games’ to, ‘Now you’re letting him go too deep into games.’ We’re just trying to win games. That’s where the eyeball test comes in.”

Gonzales (7-3) is 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA over his past five starts, throwing between 101 and 104 pitches in each of those.

“That’s kind of my limit,” Gonzales admitted.

Gonzales was acquired late last July from St. Louis for outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who was considered one of the Mariners’ best hitting prospects.

The deal seems to be looking better each time Gonzales takes the mound.

“Certain guys, when they are good their whole life, they tend to be good again,” Servais said. “Marco was a very good amateur pitcher, one of the best in the country, which is why he got drafted in the first round. He zooms through the minor leagues and he pitched in the playoffs with the Cardinals after about a year and a half in the minor leagues. He certainly has the ability.”

On deck

Buckle up, M’s fans.

After a day off Monday, the Mariners play three games in New York against the Yankees and then head to Boston for a three-game series.

The Yanks and Sox entered the weekend with the two best records in baseball.


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