In abandoning the traditional arsenal he honed for decades to start throwing a knuckleball this spring, Orioles minor leaguer Eddie Gamboa gave his career over to a fickle and foreign pitch that frustrates both hitters and the pitchers who throw it.
Gamboa had been a reliable, strike-throwing right-hander who spent parts of four seasons in Double-A. On Wednesday night, he'll take his knuckleball to Triple-A, one step closer to becoming the latest in a line of major league pitchers including R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield to have that pitch breathe new life into his career.
"It's good for now because I'm still in the minor leagues, and for me, the dream is to make it," Gamboa said last week. "However you make it, whether it's your conventional stuff or if it's the knuckleball, the goal is to make it. It's been a dream of mine since I was three years old, and now I'm 28 and it's still my dream. You're either close or you're not, but the goal is to make it."
Gamboa, who made four appearances for Triple-A Norfolk as a traditional pitcher last season, makes his first start for the Tides as a knuckleballer Wednesday at Gwinnett.
A torrid five-start stretch with Double-A Bowie that included Gamboa carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning June 23 and throwing a no-hitter in a seven-inning game June 30 aganst Harrisburg solidified that his knuckleball had progressed to the point where the Orioles thought he was ready for a new challenge.
Though Harrisburg exacted some revenge on Friday — scoring four runs against him on three hits and three walks in six innings — the no-hitter late last month signified Gamboa's biggest triumph with the knuckleball. In addition to increasing the frequency he threw the pitch to around 75 percent, Gamboa remained committed to the knuckleball in hitter's counts, when he previously would have reverted back to his traditional stuff.
The knuckleball's break and trajectory is unpredictable, but Gamboa is able to manipulate its break by varying his arm-speed and arm angle. When he throws the pitch harder from a low three-quarters arm slot, it moves horizontally like a slider. When he slows his delivery down and throws over the top, it has more vertical break.
The pitch speed varies from 65-79 mph, giving batters plenty of different looks throughout the game. Gamboa also occasionally utilizes his traditional arsenal — an 88-90 mph fastball, a mid-80s slider, and a high 70s changeup.
"It's still nice to know you've got 90 [mph] in the tank when you need it out there, but he still sees the benefits of getting one out on one pitch as opposed to throwing three or four [pitches] in a count," Bowie pitching coach Blaine Beatty said.
As Gamboa continues to dedicate himself to the pitch — he threw his latest bullpen session with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on Monday in Gwinnett — he has worked on creating a steady release point with both his knuckleball and conventional pitches. The timing differences between a slow, dancing knuckleball and a fastball are enough to keep hitters off balance, but the ability to disguise both from the same delivery won't allow hitters to time him at all.
"It's an obvious thing when I'm throwing a knuckleball, and when I'm throwing my conventional stuff," said Gamboa, who went 4-6 with a 3.64 ERA in 16 starts for the Baysox this season. "I'm trying to bridge that together so that it can kind of mix in and look as close as it can to the same, to make it look identical."
Said Beatty: "I think he's starting to see the benefits of what the pitch can do for him. That's a big adjustment going from thinking you've got good enough stuff to think you can play [in] at least Triple-A, and then say, 'Hey, I'm going to be a knuckleball pitcher.' But he's done well with it, I'm proud of him, and the payoff is starting a little bit."
With his promotion to Norfolk, Gamboa, a 21st-round pick out of UC-Davis in the 2008, is now in a spot where simply being lined up to pitch on a day the Orioles need a starting pitcher could result in his big league debut. But with a weapon as fickle as the knuckleball, he knows his development will be spotted with moments of frustration and ineffectiveness.
"It's something I'm still playing with," he said. "Right now, I feel like I have good control of it. It's just the command — command meaning within the strike zone, throwing it low and away, up and in. Right now, I'm doing a better job of throwing it for a strike. But the command the guys who have been great at it — the Dickeys, the Wakefields — they lived and died with it, and I'm not there yet.
"It's all just a matter of getting more and more comfortable with it, knowing when I can throw it for a strike, knowing how to play off the plate," he said. "But the more I throw it, the more I'm going to get comfortable with it."