SPORTS

Jays catcher Russell Martin: Corralling knuckleball is like catching a butterfly

03/02/2015 01:31 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT
DUNEDIN, Fla. - Ask Russell Martin what it's like to corral a R.A. Dickey knuckleball and the Blue Jays catcher pauses briefly, trying to capture the experience.

"Have you ever tried to catch a butterfly as it's floating around in the air?" he responded.

"I wish I could put a camera on my mask or something for people to see exactly what the ball's doing," he added. "It's pretty impressive."

Martin got his first in-game experience with the Dickey floater Monday, albeit for just one inning of a low-key intra-squad game.

Dickey issued a walk and Martin had two balls dribble out of his glove, but at no cost. That earned the Canadian catcher a positive review from Toronto manager John Gibbons.

"He's got as good as hands as anybody in baseball," Gibbons said of Martin. "That's one of the reasons he's here. It just looked almost effortless."

Martin, a Toronto native who grew up in Chelsea, Que., wants to catch Dickey so he can see as much action as possible. The Jays want their US$82-million catcher on the field to take advantage of his bat and game management.

Josh Thole has been Dickey's personal catcher in recent years.

Martin said the key to catching the knuckler is focus, tracking the ball as it comes to him. It's hard work but doable.

"As long as Dickey's comfortable out there on the mound, that's what most important," he said. "Hopefully he's OK with the way I'm handling it right now."

Dickey did not speak to the media after the game. But he has praised Martin's athleticism and willingness to learn the pitch.

Prior to Monday, Martin had two bullpen sessions and played catch with Dickey once. But he is already making adjustments and the two have been talking.

For example, the two have the understanding that if Martin calls a knuckleball, Dickey has the option to throw a fastball. But Dickey won't switch if the catcher calls for a fastball.

The idea is to allow Dickey to stay in a rhythm.

"He throws about 86 per cent knuckleballs so (he told me) when in doubt, put the knuckleball (sign) down and it kind of eliminates a lot of the thinking," Martin said.

Martin has also changed his stance, crouching sideways more so he can be more agile in handling the dancing pitch.

For the record, the Grey team beat the Blue squad 1-0 on Mitch Nay's fifth-inning homer off left-hander Juan Oramas. Nay is a non-roster invitee, a 21-year-old third baseman who played Class-A ball last year.

The seven-inning game, played before a handful of fans under sunshine at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, saw seven pitchers see action for each side.

Everything was in pre-season mode. The umpires arrived late, one out into the game, and the first music on the PA system came in the second inning.

The batters had minimal practice time before the game, so little was expected at the plate.

Still the Blue team had its chance in the bottom of the seventh with two outs when former Mississippi football player Anthony Alford ran out an infield single and Dalton Pompey of Mississauga, Ont., singled. The comeback died when Ryan Goins flied out.

Former Oakland first baseman Daric Barton showed off his agility in the second, almost making the splits to complete a double play. And Brett Cecil's pickoff move nailed a runner.

Aaron Sanchez is slated to start Tuesday when the Jays kick off their Grapefruit League schedule against visiting Pittsburgh.

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter.

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