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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

R.A. Dickey has learned not to take anything for granted

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey delivers

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey delivers a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning of a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

TORONTO - R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young Award three years ago, for his age 37 season. Technically, he was 38 when the prize was announced, a few weeks after his late October birthday.

For a moment you never imagine will arrive, the wait is inconsequential, really. When does the clock start?

The same holds true for Dickey this year, now that the Blue Jays have positioned themselves as the Yankees' primary challenger in the AL East and have become a team many believe should be in the World Series, if not win it.

Told Friday that Internet oddsmakers recently made Toronto the favorite to take the Fall Classic, at 4-1, Dickey smiled. The Blue Jays were in the midst of an 11-game winning streak and looking like the best team in baseball. But he immediately added the perspective born of heartbreak, perseverance and, ultimately, achievement.

Pitching in a World Series? The thought must be mind-blowing for Dickey, who had a grand total of only 43 major-league starts before the Mets made the knuckleballer a cult hero, bestselling author and documentary subject -- all during that age 37 season in Flushing.

Before that conversation escalates much further, however, Dickey provides a recent cautionary tale.

The year is 2013, and Dickey has his trophy, along with a new two-year, $25-million contract with the Blue Jays, whom everyone is picking to win the World Series.

It made sense at the time. A stunning multiplayer trade with the Marlins brought Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson north of the border, supposedly shoring up Toronto's biggest weaknesses -- a switch-hitting speedster for the top of the order and the requisite rotation help.

Those Blue Jays began the season 10-20, crept close to .500 (45-49) by the All-Star break, then went belly-up at 74-88, putting them at the very bottom of the AL East. But during February and March of that year, the talk didn't sound all that much different from what Dickey has been hearing now.

"Everybody was like, this team on paper is unbelievable,'' he said. "So we kind of bought into the hype -- and we ended up finishing last. That did a lot for me in the way of understanding that you can't take anything for granted. That past success doesn't necessarily guarantee future success, and I think that permeates through the clubhouse now.

"It's pretty easy for me to hold this gently because I know the Yankees are right there and they're a really good baseball team. The Orioles can catch fire at any moment. There's a lot of things out there that could take away our ability to move on. I learned a valuable lesson [in 2013]. I thought we were going to be really good. We stunk.''

On the heels of yet another dramatic makeover by the Jays, this one at midseason, Dickey's reflection begs the question: What's different now?

Toronto not only added a six-time All-Star in Troy Tulowitzki and a Cy Young winner in David Price but picked up significant bullpen pieces Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins and helpful outfielder Ben Revere.

This seems to be working out so far. But whenever a team makes sweeping changes, regardless of the talent level, there are a number of dynamics to consider. Dickey was in the Jays' clubhouse for both.

"You throw a whole bunch of new guys in the locker room together -- from different places, different philosophies, different points in their careers -- and you don't know,'' Dickey said. "We also had a bunch of injuries that year. That was all detrimental to us doing anything special.

"This year, it's been pretty organic. We've always felt like we were a couple pieces away. We knew we needed an arm, and when we got David, I think there was a real psychological component to that. Like people said, 'We do it now.' ''

And Dickey, one of the holdovers from that costly '13 flop, is a prominent reason that faith has been restored.

As he has said often in the past, the knuckleball is capricious by nature, but he has been locked in since the All-Star break at 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA. He has held opponents to a .196 batting average and may have helped sabotage the Yankees' offense longer-term by teaming with Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright to beat them in the Bronx only two days apart.

"I think Steven's going to be good for a while,'' Dickey said of MLB's only other knuckleballer. "He's got a great idea what he wants to do. His mechanic is very repeatable and simple. He's got the mentality. So I think when I go, there will at least be him, and as long as there's one, it's enough to inspire others to do it.''

Wright baffled the Yankees on Aug. 5, allowing one run in eight innings and striking out nine. Dickey followed by holding them to one run in seven innings. The Yankees spiraled into a funk after that, getting shut out in consecutive games for the first time since 1999. Beginning with Wright's gem, they went 37-for-236 (.157) in a seven-game span.

"It's a small sample size, but it's a good hypothesis,'' Dickey said. "We both had good knuckleballs, so they saw a bunch of them, and I could see some of their hitters were even doing different things to try to adjust to the pitch. So you can imagine what that might do for a week or two afterward.''

The knuckleball can be a wobbly grenade in the middle of a rotation -- sometimes as dangerous to its owner as to the opposing team. But in a short series, come October, it can have a destabilizing effect that spreads to the next day and beyond.

Plus, as Dickey mentioned, when the relievers who follow him are throwing 95 or 96 mph with wicked sliders, that's tough to adjust to on the fly.

In the next seven weeks, we'll see what impact the Dickey Effect has on the Blue Jays, who hold a $12-million option on him for next season.

Dickey turns 41 on what will be the day off between World Series Games 2 and 3 this year. Some expect him to still be pitching around then. Beyond that, he isn't sure yet. But it sounds as if the knuckleball won't become extinct in the majors anytime soon.

"I feel good,'' Dickey said. "And my body feels great. I don't feel 40. I don't know what 40 is supposed to feel like, but I don't feel old. I think that if I keep going the way I'm going, I'll throw another year of 200-plus innings, and in the AL East, I could be a real asset for a team.''

As predictions go, that's probably a safe bet.


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