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The Rays and the return of the Knuckle Ball

Two different players, each with an interesting story, have the chance to be among the first knucklers in team history.

David Seelig/Getty Images

The Rays are taking a slightly unconventional approach in pitchers this upcoming season as they have signed two under-the-radar players who can toss the age old knuckle ball.

The knuckle ball has certainly played a role in Rays history, but mostly the Rays have been on the wrong side of it, flailing away at Tim Wakefield's floater and  R.A. Dickey darter.  As far as we can tell, only one Rays pitcher used the pitch on a nightly basis, Dennis Springer, who appeared in 29 games for the Rays in 1998.

Here's one of those knucklers and Barry Bonds showing exactly how to hit it...setting a new single-season home run record.

knuckle ball

Springer was pretty awful in his one season with the Rays, sporting a higher walk than strikeout rate in the midst of one of the worst pitched seasons in team history. Rays front office folks are probably only now recovering from that experience.

As for the Rays' success against knucklers:   Wakefield and Dickey have both dominated the Rays at times -- some of you might remember Dickey's masterful 1-hitter thrown at Tropicana field for the Mets --  while they've been rocked at others. There is one pitcher though  in particular who has only had success against the Rays...Chelsea Baker.

The Rays' current strategy seems simple: sign everyone and anyone in the game that can toss the difficult pitch and stash them in the minors with the hopes that they can be refined enough to be used as a valuable weapon.

The team even hired Charlie Heagar to be a minor league pitching coordinator with presumably the principle task of teaching others his excellent knuckle ball.

So far the Rays have brought in two pitchers who can toss the pitch, rather than go the Hatfield route -- which could  never plausibly happen. (I am of course referring to the wonderful thought experiment that occurred earlier this off-season in which Hatfield and Danny destroyed the Rays).

The two players the Rays have brought in are Eddie Gamboa and Jeff Howell.

Gamboa added the pitch to his repertoire in the hope it will make him stand out. Having spent the first eight years of his professional career with the Orioles and advancing all the way to Triple-A, Gamboa has never been able to push the envelope enough to pitch in the majors.

Drafted in 2008, Gamboa developed the pitch under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, but perhaps a change of scenery with the Rays and the guidance of Heager, the Rays may have found a new weapon.

The other knuckle baller the Rays signed is Jeff Howell, a former journeyman minor league catcher who had been with four organizations from 2006 to 2015 before signing with the Rays.

After spending most of his career as a backup catcher and struggling to put up consistent good years he decided to take the mound in 2015, and even went back to the Rookie leagues to work on his craft. The Rays must have seen something they liked as they picked him up earlier this month.

With the return of the knuckleball to the Rays repertoire, it should be interesting to see whether the team puts any vote of confidence in the jilted, jangley pitch.

-- UPDATE -- 9/1/2016

The Tampa Bay Rays have announced that Eddie Gamboa has been promoted from Triple-A Durham along with Curt Casali and Ryan Garton.