TORONTO — R.A. Dickey and the Jays found the win column, notching a valuable victory against an American League East opponent, but remain very much a work in progress.
Toronto needed Tampa Bay to help its cause Monday, with Rays reliever Josh Lueke walking four — one intentionally — in an ugly seventh inning that propelled the Jays to a 7-5 win on a sun-splashed Victoria Day matinee.
Dickey (4-5) scattered four hits over a season-high eight innings, striking out five and walking four in his team-leading seventh quality start of the season. The 38-year-old knuckleballer, who has suffered neck and back issues, says he has a ways to go yet — both with his health and knuckleball.
“It’s still pretty inconsistent. I’m still walking more guys than I hope to, which is causing my pitch counts to be higher,” said Dickey, who had ice on his right knee after the game. “That should have been a game where my pitch count should have been around 100 pitches after eight (innings) and I went 120-something.
“But you’ve just got to keep grinding it out. I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck in a quagmire for the last week, two weeks. So it’s nice to feel like you’ve got at least one foot out of it.”
He threw 120 pitches, 72 for strikes, was charged with just two earned runs and did not give up a hit after the fourth inning. He had good movement on the knuckleball but found it hard to control.
His pitch might have been a tad wonky but, as always, Dickey’s vocabulary was spot on.
“The knuckleball can be a very capricious animal,” he said. “It’s there one batter and then it kind of goes away. You can throw great ones and they’re just not strikes.”
Dickey had been slated to pitch Sunday at Yankee Stadium but the game was rained out.
The underperforming Jays (18-26) entered the game having lost their last two while the resurgent Rays (23-21), sweeping Baltimore to open a six-game AL East road trip, had won three straight and nine of their last 11.
Toronto is now 9-17 against AL East opponents.
A crowd of 29,885 took in the start of a nine-game homestand that also includes visits by Baltimore and Atlanta.
Edwin Encarnacion provided the key offence, doubling home three runs in the seventh inning.
Lueke (0-1) has only himself to blame after walking Emilio Bonifacio, Munenori Kawaski and Jose Bautista with the game knotted at 3-3. Encarnacion, who has reached base safely in 22 of his last 25 games, then slammed a swerving ball into left field to clear the bases.
Kawasaki added a run in the eighth inning, driving in Henry Blanco with a triple. Former Jay Yunel Escobar hit a two-run homer on a 3-2 pitch with two out in the ninth off a rusty Casey Janssen to narrow the lead to 7-5.
The Rays got the tying run on base with a single and walk before Janssen finally put out the fire by striking out Ben Zobrist.
Escobar was booed at every visit to the plate for the Rays. The shortstop, who was traded away from Toronto in November after writing a homophobic slur on his eye black, grounded out to third base three times before his home run.
He celebrated as he crossed home plate, making a safe sign. Janssen said he did not see the gesture.
“I don’t think he was doing anything directed to me,” said Janssen. “We were teammates. I had nothing wrong with him.”
Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: “I’m sure that was an emotional moment for him. The booing probably promoted the reaction that he had. I’m going to talk to him about that (Tuesday). I’m certain you’re not going to see that again.”
Janssen, who had not pitched for eight days, gave up three hits and a walk in his one inning. He said he and the team are trying to strike a balance between resting a sore shoulder and getting the work in needed to stay sharp.
“I probably didn’t feel the best I’ve ever felt today but I think in the long run it’s going to help my arm out to get those extra days (off) and feel fresh for the future,” said the Jays closer.
“He got the job done, that’s the bottom line,” said manager John Gibbons.