Former Orioles farmhand Eddie Gamboa, who extended his career — and his dream of making the majors — by becoming a knuckleball pitcher, finally made his major league debut on Friday for the Rays after toiling in the minors for nine seasons.
Gamboa spent eight of those years in the Orioles organization, including three seasons trying to perfect the knuckleball. The organization brought in Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro to work with him, and Gamboa sought advice from fellow knuckleballers R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright.
But it took a change in organizations for Gamboa to see consistent success with the knuckleball. He went 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 27 games (12 starts) for Triple-A Durham, his best full season since making the transition. That earned the 31-year-old Gamboa a promotion to the Rays when rosters expanded at the beginning of this month.
After struggling in his debut on Friday against Toronto — three of the four batters he faced reached base — Gamboa threw three scoreless innings against his former team in a 7-3 Orioles win on Monday at Tropicana Field. He retired eight of the nine batters he faced, his only baserunner a walk to Mark Trumbo in the seventh inning.
"The good thing about today also was Eddie Gamboa came in and threw the ball really well," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "It's nice to see after his first outing. We kind of figured that once he got a little more comfort and the nerves went away, he was going to throw a good outing and he really did."
Before the game, Gamboa said he had thought about how surreal it would be to face his old team this week in Tampa Bay..
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"I've thought more about seeing the guys and knowing who I'm pitching against and seeing a lot of familiar faces, but all I know is black and orange," Gamboa said. "Everything in my closet was black and orange and now you're playing against black and orange. That's a part of the game and that's just a part of life, and [I'll] go out there and give it my very best. I am indebted to the Orioles organization for the opportunities I was given when other teams weren't going to give it to me."
Gamboa was called up to the Orioles last year for two games in April, but he didn't pitch. On Friday, he made his major league debut for the Rays in the eighth inning of a 6-3 loss to Toronto. He retired just one of four batters he faced, but that didn't take away from accomplishing a goal nearly a decade in the making.
Gamboa said working with former knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, who was hired by the Rays to be a minor league pitching coordinator and work with Gamboa, helped him gain confidence in throwing the knuckleball more often. The Orioles wanted Gamboa to throw the knuckleball 80 percent of the time, and he finally was able to reach that mark this season in Durham.
Even though it took him leaving the Orioles organization to reach the majors, Gamboa said he still owes a lot to the Orioles for making him a knuckleballer and sticking with him.
"[Dan] Duquette and [Buck] Showalter and the whole organization, I owe them everything for every accomplishment I've been able to have," Gamboa said. "Yeah, I owe them everything, because they believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. They saw the potential when I didn't see it. So yeah, I owe them everything and I'm forever grateful."