Gamboa trying to master knuckler with Rays

Right-hander has been throwing pitch in Minors since 2013

Gamboa trying to master knuckler with Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Eddie Gamboa gives the Rays a different look. In return, they are giving the fledgling knuckleballer a baseball rebirth.

The knuckleball is hard to control, it's hard to catch and, most importantly, it's hard to hit.

Spring Training: Schedule | Tickets | More info

Gamboa, 31, signed a Minor League deal with the Rays in January. He was selected by the Orioles in the 21st round of the 2008 Draft, and Gamboa enjoyed modest success at the lower levels before reality began to set in.

"I was never a power pitcher," Gamboa said. "I was an average righty, throwing 88, 89 [mph]. I wasn't left-handed. Everything was average. I had to do something that was going to make me different than any right-handed pitcher."

Gamboa's solution: Adopt the "dancing medicine ball."

If hitters liken the experience of trying to hit a knuckleball to trying to eat soup with a fork, mastering such a pitch could be beneficial. Gamboa had tinkered with the pitch since he was 12 years old, and he incorporated it into his repertoire in 2013.

"It was something to just kind of mess around with for fun," Gamboa said. "I'd had it for a while, but I'd never used it professionally until 2013, when I met Phil Niekro."

Gamboa noted that meeting the Hall of Fame knuckleballer proved invaluable.

"He gave me a lot of confidence by telling me I had a big league knuckleball," Gamboa said. "He told me, 'Let's try to work on this full time and give you a long career.'"

Gamboa said he received more mental instruction from Niekro than mechanical.

"He helped me with the mental stuff about walking guys and the wild pitches," Gamboa said. "You know, that's a huge deal. Because I came from a background where walks are a big no-no. You're giving a free base.

"With a knuckleball, that's going to happen a lot. And he helped me to really try to get over that mentally. You might walk the bases loaded, but you know what? With a knuckleball, you have the opportunity to get out of it. And very few people have that opportunity, so throwing the knuckleball, it's a weak contact pitch. That's my main goal for it."

Gamboa, who went 8-11 with a 4.61 ERA in 26 appearances (19 starts) while pitching for Triple-A Norfolk last season, used the pitch 40 percent of the time. The Rays want to see him increase that percentage.

"I told [Rays manager] Kevin [Cash] if I could throw it for a strike on every pitch, there's no reason to throw any other pitch," Gamboa said.

Gamboa is enthusiastic about his situation with Tampa Bay, and he wants to make the most of that opportunity.

"I'm excited about the chance I'm being given," he said. "And I'm getting better and better every day.

"I tell everyone I'm a 31-year-old rookie. Obviously, everyone's goal is pitching in the big leagues. The hard part is getting there, then being consistent enough to stay there. The knuckleball is hopefully going to give me those opportunities, and I'm going to do everything possible to take advantage."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.