Before the Orioles faced Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright on Monday afternoon, manager Buck Showalter likened hitting baseball's most unpredictable pitch to "swatting a butterfly with a needle."
"Swing hard and hope you collide with it," Showalter said.
As the Orioles opened an important four-game series with the division-leading Red Sox on Monday, strategy gave way to blind luck and the Baltimore bats had no answers for Wright, whose knuckleball danced through their swings in a 7-2 Orioles loss at Camden Yards.
While the Orioles have lost six of their last eight games, the focus has been on the offense's inconsistencies, the hitters' penchant for high strikeout totals and the difficulties in manufacturing runs because of it. The Orioles have scored three or fewer runs in five of their last eight games.
But Wright had the Orioles shaking their heads. He allowed just four hits on the afternoon, and none after the fifth inning. He retired 13 of the final 15 Orioles batters he faced, issuing only a pair of ninth-inning walks over that span.
"It was a challenge," said Orioles designated hitter Mark Trumbo, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a walk. "He had great stuff today. It never ended up where it started. You can't really predict where to swing. You just hope that you get one that maybe doesn't move quite as much. If you do, hey, hang with them."
Wright — whose 2.54 ERA is the fifth-best in the American League — tossed his third complete-game of the season Sunday on a career-high 122 pitches, the second-most by a pitcher in a game this season.
As a team, the Orioles don't have one complete game this year.
"It's quite a weapon for a team to have, a guy who you can run out there on three [or] four days rest," Showalter said. "It doesn't matter. And throw 120-whatever [pitches] and don't worry about it and pitch in extra-inning games. He's been solid for them. He's finally healthy. I was looking at his history on the plane coming in. Good job by the Red Sox staying with him and working through it. He's been doing it for a long time."
The movement on Wright's knuckleball was so dramatic that catcher Ryan Hanigan struggled corralling Wright's pitches throughout the game. The Orioles loaded the bases in the second inning in part because of two walks — Wright had five on the day — and a wild pitch and passed ball that advanced runners.
"How do you prepare for it?" Showalter said. "It's different. You hope they don't have a real good one. I told you all before, if you see weak ground balls and some topped ground balls and weak fly balls early, he has a good one. And the catcher's not catching it very clean. You actually like to see your catcher not catching it clean early. Kind of tells you he's got a lot of movement."
Complementing his knuckleball with a smattering of a four-seam fastball and big breaking curveball, he offered the Orioles not only a variety of movements but also a variety of speeds. His curveball was as low as 60 mph and his fastball hit 87 mph.
Of the 78 knuckleballs Wright threw on Sunday, 50 of them were strikes (64.1 percent), including 35 that induced swings. The Orioles swung and missed at 14 of those (40 percent).
The perfect example of Wright's effectiveness with the knuckleball came on his fourth batter of the afternoon, when Orioles first baseman Chris Davis swung through a 77-mph knuckleball that hooked, tailed and Hanigan completely missed with his mitt to open the second inning.
The Orioles struck out just seven times against Wright — they averaged 17 strikeouts in their three-game series in Houston last week — but the knuckler induced weak contact, getting 12 ground-ball outs in the game.
"It's just a weird feeling, swinging and not even making contact most of the time," Trumbo said. "It's a credit to how good it is. You also saw that it was a struggle to catch at times, so you just hope that you have a good path, and if it doesn't move, maybe you have a chance at it."
Trumbo added that he didn't want to alter his approach at the plate too much for Wright.
"I'd rather not change my approach for one guy if I can help it," Trumbo said. "You want to compete, obviously, today, but to change my whole game plan and mechanics or whatever for one guy when we've got the majority coming behind it, it doesn't make sense. If you take your medicine, so be it. I'd rather stay geared up for guys we're going to see tomorrow."
The Orioles don't face knuckleballers often. Toronto's R.A. Dickey is the only other one in the AL East, and Dickey has boasted a 2.73 ERA against the Orioles over the past three seasons, including a quality start (six innings, three runs) against the O's on April 20.
They'll see Wright again, but hope they'll get better results next time.
"It might be part of it," Trumbo said about the difficulty of hitting knuckleballers when you don't see them often. "We have two in division, so we'll see a few this year. I don't even know. We've all had different ideas on how to have success. I think a lot of it is luck of the draw and what kind of pitch you get to work with."