PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA. — Orioles right-hander Eddie Gamboa is nearly a year into his transition, tinkering with baseball's most temperamental pitch.
But when Gamboa entered his first big-league spring training game on Friday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays, he didn't initially resort to throwing his newfound knuckleball. Instead, his first pitch was a 91-mph fastball that whizzed past Rays catcher Ali Solis.
Last season was an experiment for Gamboa, born when he tried a knuckleball in front of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro at Orioles minor league camp. After toiling in the minors and never reaching above the Double-A level, Gamboa felt that developing a knuckler could be a difference maker.
Now, at age 29, he is the closest he's been to the majors.
"It's a wonderful feeling to know that your hard work is slowly paying off," Gamboa said. "We're going on the right track here. But this is always where I expected to be. Now I have the opportunity to do something and just compete and just try to open up some eyes again like I did last year. … I've come a long ways, just with the confidence. I think that's the biggest thing. I'm confident that I can go out there and pitch with it. … I feel like a different pitcher than I did last year."
The toughest obstacle is having faith in the unpredictable pitch. Gamboa admits that while he can now control the knuckleball, he might not be able to command it. His coaches insist that only repetition will lead to perfecting the pitch, but Gamboa also has the ability to get hitters out with his conventional stuff.
"It's a very fickle weapon, but when he does throw it, it has the chance to be an out pitch," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "I think he's getting together his approach, and he's developed that through his experience last year. He has some good skills.
"He already had a good foundation as a pitcher when he debuted with his knuckleball," Duquette said. "He's a good athlete, a good fielder. He has a plus-90s fastball and a breaking ball he can throw over the plate. And now he's learning how to change speeds on his knuckleball and how to throw it for strikes depending on the conditions."
Last season, Gamboa saw success at Double-A Bowie, going 4-6 with a 3.64 ERA in 16 starts before earning a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk, where he received mixed results, going 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA.
Last year, he experimented with how often he threw the knuckleball. In Double-A, he threw it about 50 percent of the time and saw success. In Norfolk, he threw it much more — about 80 percent of the time, including one outing in which 93 of his 100 pitches were knuckleballs — but that didn't necessarily translate into results.
"I was really trying to find my identity last year," Gamboa said. "Now, I have an idea of what I want to do. I have a plan for 2014. If it's great and I can control it better than other days, I'm going to throw it more and more. If I can't, then fortunately I have something to fall back on to help me get through as many innings as I can. But in Triple-A there were times when I didn't have the knuckleball and I had to keep throwing it. It was a good learning curve for me, but I didn't like that feeling at all. It was like going out there at the Triple-A level — the highest level I've been at in pro baseball — and throwing left-handed.
"I'm a very competitive person, so it was a tough thing to swallow. At times it was embarrassing so now I'm trying to compete, work on it, throw it. If I can throw it for strikes, I wouldn't throw anything else. It's as simple as that. There are going to be days where I can't, and I'm going to throw nothing but that, and there's going to be days when I don't want to throw it at all. So, that's why I'm here, trying to improve, trying to get better."
The Orioles appear committed to the process. They placed Gamboa on the 40-man roster early in the offseason. Despite later taking him off, they re-signed him about a month later to a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp.
Niekro, who won 318 games in career while utilizing the knuckleball, made several trips to Bowie and Norfolk to work with Gamboa last year, and will continue to mentor him this season. Niekro is expected to visit camp in mid-March, Duquette said.
"It's one of those things, you've really got to sell yourself on," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Am I a knuckleball pitcher or not? And that's what I think he's trying to work through. You can see why we're comfortable going through the process with that too. How many knuckleball pitchers lead the first guy off the first pitch of the inning with a fastball? It's unconventional-unconventional, if that makes any sense, which I'm sure it doesn't.
"It's such a lure to him to throw all his pitches. They all have that pitch they can get back into the count on, and you'd like for it to be a knuckleball, really. ... Sometime there's a conversation to be had. Are you a knuckleball pitcher, or not?"
The question is whether Gamboa will get comfortable enough with the pitch to get hitters out with it at the major league level. Pitching winter ball in Mexico this winter, Gamboa said he threw the knuckleball about 30 percent of the time in a league full of free-swinging hitters. But it allowed him to get confidence in using his knuckleball as an out pitch.
"When you talk about changing your approach, that's part of him determining his identity as a pitcher," Duquette said. "How is he going to get the hitters out? That takes time. … I think he needed to find out a little more about how to try to control his knuckleball, and then settle on the type of pitcher he's going to be."
Gamboa has a low 90's fastball to go along with a slider, and has developed different speeds to his knuckleball, something that Niekro perfected in his day. Gamboa has a hard knuckleball that hits the low 80s and a softer version in the low 60s.
New Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace has coached two of the game's better knuckleballers. He coached right-hander Tim Wakefield, who made the transition from being a position player, in Boston. He also coached right-hander Tom Candiotti — a conventional pitcher who found out how to combine a knuckle and curveball to become effective — when he was the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I had seven years of knuckleballers," Wallace said. "If you have a knuckleball and it's a good one, you can really have a good career. The question becomes if you're a guy with marginal stuff and you're committed to throwing the knuckleball, what's the percentage of how often do you throw it? Sometimes you get caught in between."
Gamboa said Wallace told him this week that he has a knuckleball comparable to Wakefield's in his early years.
"That was definitely some encouragement for me," Gamboa said. "He told me 'the only way you're going to get better with it is keep throwing.' It's one of those things where I have to get used to it, get comfortable but at the same time stay at the right level — I don't want to go to low-A or high-A and work on it.
"I feel like I can compete with it now, and given the repertoire I have right now, I think I can take it into a game right now and give it my best shot."
Pitching in Wednesday's intrasquad game, Gamboa threw knuckleballs on six of nine pitches and recorded a quick, scoreless inning, striking out Steve Pearce on a knuckleball.
In his Grapefruit League outing on Friday, Gamboa retired the side in order in the sixth inning of the Orioles' 4-2 victory, striking out two batters swinging — both on knuckleballs.
"The fact that I'm still here says a lot," Gamboa said. "Getting hitters out, that's the name of the game, just get outs. If you get outs and you get early contact, you're doing your job."