Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Six games into the 2014 season and the Toronto Blue Jays already have two shutouts under their belt.
“That’s been a rarity around here,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said dryly. “Maybe we’re on to something.”
It took the 2013 Jays 53 games to collect that many shutouts. They were 2-4 at this stage.
Of course, Toronto (3-3) has also had three games this season in which the pitching staff has surrendered 11-plus hits. The Jays lost all three of those.
What does it all mean? That, as Gibbons predicted repeatedly during spring training, Toronto will go as far as its pitching takes it this season.
On Saturday, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey outduelled Michael Pineda with late home-run help from Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista as Toronto blanked the New York Yankees 4-0.
Dickey (1-1) pitched a gem of the game but Toronto’s early lack of offence meant the contest was balanced on a knife’s edge as he worked to protect a slim 1-0 lead. He was aided by some nifty defence, some of which was his own handiwork. Centre-fielder Colby Rasmus also made two sparkling defensive plays to help blunt New York attacks.
“Our defence has been superb to start the year … We’ve played great defence, we’ve had timely hitting,” said Dickey. “Hopefully we can keep pushing forward.”
The former New York Met has now allowed just one earned run in his last 20 innings against the Yankees.
Gibbons, who got the other shutout in Tampa from Mark Buehrle, savoured what he called a bounce back game after 7-2 and 7-3 losses to the Rays and Yankees, respectively.
“It was a big game this early in the year,” said Gibbons. “(Dickey) stepped up and the bullpen did their thing.
“It was good to see the offence open it up late and give us a little breathing room. That’s huge in this game, especially in this ball park.”
An Adam Lind double and Josh Thole RBI single gave the Jays a 1-0 lead in the second inning. It could have been more but Thole was thrown out trying to take second with Ryan Goins at the plate. Goins’ subsequent double was wasted.
A solo homer by Cabrera and two-run shot by Bautista, both off reliever David Phelps in the eighth, added some insurance for the Jays. It was Cabrera’s second home run in as many days and Bautista’s third of the season.
Toronto outhit New York 8-7.
Dickey exited with two out and one man on in the seventh, having held the Yankees (2-3) scoreless on five hits. The veteran right-hander struck out six and walked one in a 108-pitch performance that included 69 strikes.
“You never know what you’re going to get there, you have no idea,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the knuckleballer. “You have no idea who’s going to hit him or not hit him. It’s probably the most unpredictable day that you’re going to have as a manager.”
The top of the Yankees’ order threatened in the eighth with men on first and second with none out against Brett Cecil. The left-hander got two out and then gave way to right-hander Sergio Santos with men on second and third.
Santos struck out Alfonso Soriano to preserve the lead for Toronto. Rasmus made a dazzling over-the-shoulder catch of a Francisco Cervelli blast to deep centre in the ninth to deny the Yankees.
Santos survived putting two men on in the ninth to record his second save, striking out the red-hot Jacoby Ellsbury to end the game.
The afternoon contest drew an announced crowd of 45,446 to Rogers Centre, the second straight sellout under the dome.
Pineda (0-1), in his first Yankees start after a lengthy injury absence, gave up one earned run on five hits in six innings. He threw 83 pitches, 58 for strikes, and struck out five with no walks.
The 25-year-old Pineda’s last big league start was Sept. 21, 2011 as a Seattle Mariner.
He was traded to the Yankees after the 2011 season in a deal that sent catcher Jesus Montero to the Mariners. But the 2011 all-star was shelved by a shoulder injury during 2012 spring training.
The six-foot-seven 265-pound pitcher from the Dominican Republic returned to action last July, going 2-1 with a 3.32 ERA in 10 starts in the minors.
Dickey lost the season opener 9-2 to Tampa Bay, giving up a career-high six walks in five innings work. He also struck out four.
He credited higher velocity for part of the turnaround from the Tampa to Toronto games.
“Part of it’s the pitch, I mean really,” he said of the mercurial knuckleball. “And some of it’s the fact that I was able to climb to those higher velocities today.
“But look, you’ve got to live and die with the pitch. That’s part of what makes it very difficult to do at the big league level and it’s part of the thing that makes it very special.”
Cervelli doubled off Dickey to open the third after the first six Yankees went down in order. Dickey struck out the next two Yanks and Rasmus gunned down Cervelli at the plate on a single by Ellsbury.
The play survived a review, initiated by the umpiring crew to see whether Thole was blocking the plate. The perfectly placed throw was in front of Thole down the third-base line, meaning the catcher had to step over the plate to get to it.
The two collided at the plate but Thole held on to the ball.
The Yankees had something going in the sixth with a single and walk and none out. But Dickey, who received his Gold Glove award Friday, hauled in a Carlos Beltran hard liner to trigger a double play. A lineout completed the escape.
Yankees veteran Derek Jeter, who was rested Friday, was denied in his bid for a 3,319th career hit which would tie Paul Molitor for eighth on MLB’s all-time list and fourth on the AL career list.
The Yankees have now gone the first five games of the season without a home run for only the fifth time since 1932.