MINNEAPOLIS -- R.A. Dickey prides himself on not being a traditional knuckleballer, but that's exactly what he has resembled through four starts of the 2014 season.
The biggest criticism of the knuckleball is that it can be a very unpredictable pitch and one that is extremely difficult to throw for strikes. When Dickey was at his best with the Mets, he was able to avoid those pitfalls, but that hasn't always been the case in Toronto.
Dickey's control problems continued Thursday afternoon as he issued five walks and surrendered five runs over just 4 1/3 innings during the Blue Jays' 7-0 loss to the Twins in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Target Field.
"I'd get a good count and then really try to finish guys, and they would do a good job of laying off really good pitches," said Dickey, who now has a 6.26 ERA in four starts. "I thought I got squeezed here on a couple of pitches, but outside of that, it was one of those days where you're really not putting together the whole game.
"Putting four good innings together, and then I'm letting some external, something, impact the inning, whether it's a ball that I thought should have been a strike or a ball that gets through a hole. We're fortunate that the other [starters] are going well. It won't remain this way, it's just tough to weather."
Dickey now has 15 walks in 23 innings this season, which trails only Philadelphia's A.J. Burnett for most in the Major Leagues. From 2010-12 with the Mets, he averaged just 2.2 walks per nine innings, he saw that number rise to 2.8 with the Blue Jays last season, and this year it's at a startling 5.9 in a very small sample size.
Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole has been with Dickey through the good times and bad. The two were batterymates with the Mets and came over together as part of last year's offseason trade for top prospects Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. Outside of Dickey, there's nobody else who has a better read on the reasons behind his sudden loss of command.
Dickey has averaged more than four walks per start this season. For a lot of pitchers, that usually means there's a mechanical issue or some mental roadblocks that need to be cleared, but according to Thole, it's a much different situation with Toronto's Opening Day starter.
"I think it's moving an awful lot. I think that has been part of it," Thole said of the knuckleball. "It's a good thing, but I guess it can play the reverse side of it, too. Today we walked some guys, but it was moving an awful lot, so it's not like it was ball to ball. They were good knuckleballs that just took off out of the zone."
In addition to a high number of baserunners, the other downside to Dickey's command issues is that he's forced to throw more fastballs. That was the case in the fifth inning of Thursday afternoon's game when he started to struggle and was unable to pitch himself out of the jam.
After battling through four innings, Dickey encountered some issues with one out in the fifth. There was an infield single when Brett Lawrie made a diving stab at a ball but was unable to come up with the clean throw, which was followed by a pair of back-to-back singles by Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe for the first run of the game.
Right fielder Chris Colabello drew a walk, and even though Dickey appeared to be losing control on the mound, manager John Gibbons decided to stick with him instead of going to the bullpen. That proved costly, as Jason Kubel followed with an RBI single to right and Josmil Pinto hit a two-run double on Dickey's third consecutive fastball.
"It's certainly moving better at this point, believe it or not, than last year," Dickey said after his shortest outing of the season. "But I feel over the course of the season -- I have over 190 innings left -- I truly believe all of the peripheral numbers are going to even out. I'm traditionally a slow starter, and hopefully I can get back on track next time."
Toronto's offense remained quiet for pretty much the entire afternoon. Colby Rasmus had a pair of singles in his return from a strained hamstring, but in total, the Blue Jays managed to get just four hits off Kyle Gibson.
Minnesota's starter struck out four and walked just one while throwing 62 of his 105 pitches for strikes. He also came within three outs of recording the first complete game of his career.
"It was a nice performance," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Our starting pitcher set the tone, and boy did he ever. He lobbied to stay back out there. He said to give him just 10 more pitches. But this early in the season, we're not going to do that to that kid's arm. But it was a great performance by him and some good hitting. We had a big five-run inning against a tough knuckleballer."
The Blue Jays will complete their three-game series vs. the Twins with another game on Thursday night. Toronto still has a chance at winning its third series in a row with a victory, as right-hander Dustin McGowan takes the mound against Minnesota's Mike Pelfrey.