Eddie Gamboa has found stability on the mound by redefining himself. Ironically, that constancy has been born out of the most unstable of pitches -- the knuckleball.
Gamboa (2-4) scattered three hits and three walks while striking out six batters over seven innings in the Double-A Bowie Baysox's 6-0 win over the host Reading Fightin Phils.
"I felt great. It's one of those things where the knuckleball is so new to me, I was trying to mix in the knuckleball with my conventional stuff," said Gamboa. "[Catcher] Caleb Joseph called a great game and mixed it up pretty well ... You have to have a lot of patience and throw your ego out the window."
Gamboa, who also throws a two-seam fastball, a slider and a changeup, threw 60 of 96 pitches for strikes and fired three wild pitches in earning his first win in four starts.
The 28-year-old used an inning-ending double play to erase a one-out walk to Edgar Duran in the first inning, and he retired the side in order in the second.
It was the third that proved most eventful for the right-hander. Albert Cartwright singled to lead off the inning, stole second base and then got picked off. Andy Gonzalez followed with a walk and advanced to third base on a pair of wild pitches, but Gamboa struck out Tyson Gillies and Tyler Henson to escape unscathed.
The UC Davis product worked around a walk in the fourth and a single in the fifth, but he finished strong by retiring seven of the final eight batters he faced. His seven innings tied a season high, while his six punchouts fell one short of his 2013 high.
"With the knuckleball, you throw so many pitches and get so deep into counts, the defense falls asleep on you so you have to do everything correct to keep them on their toes," Gamboa said. "I had a couple walks today, but not so many that they weren't able to make plays behind me.
"Baseball's a game of stats and I know that if I fall behind, I'm going to get hurt no matter what."
Gamboa's journey through the professional ranks has not been typical. Selected by the Orioles in the 21st round of the 2008 Draft, he has not kept the same role for any extended period of time.
He went 1-7 as a starter in his rookie year for Bluefield, but he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen across three levels the following season. The 2010 campaign saw the 6-foot-2 right-hander start as a closer and finish back in the rotation, and he started, closed and started again in 21 Eastern League games for Bowie in 2011.
Last year, things were equally as convoluted. He began in middle relief for Bowie, then spent three weeks as a spot starter in Triple-A Norfolk. From there, he made two appearances in Class A Advanced Frederick -- once as a starter, the other in long relief -- before returning to the Baysox where he made 12 starts in his final 14 contests of the season.
"It's nice knowing that you will pitch every five days and that they will give you the game ball and that you'll go as long as you can," said Gamboa, who has learned how to throw two speeds of knuckleballs from two different arm slots. "It's nice. For me right now, it helps that I have my conventional stuff to back me up if the knuckleball isn't working.
"I would say I threw it about 40 percent of the time today, that's probably my average. Do I need to throw it more? Absolutely. But tonight was a step in the right direction. The organization wants me to be a knuckleball pitcher who throws a slider and a changeup as opposed to just a conventional pitcher who occasionally throws a knuckleball."
Life as a knuckleballer started great for Gamboa, who fired six hitless innings in his season debut against Harrisburg. Since then, however, he has had his struggles.
He entered Wednesday's start with a 1-4 record and a 4.91 ERA in the 10 games since his gem in the opening series. Among the problems he faced -- typical in the life of a knuckleballer -- was command. He had a 1.36 WHIP, and while he only walked 18 batters over 64 2/3 innings, he also uncorked 10 wild pitches and hit five batters.
Gamboa got the club to buy his catcher a specialized Rawlings knuckleball catchers mitt following complaints their first purchase -- an All-Star knuckleball glove -- was too small.
"I learned the knuckleball from my father [Ascencion] when I was in seventh grade, so [I was] 12 or 13 years old," said Gamboa, who considers himself fortunate to count Phil Niekro as one of the newest contacts in his cell phone. "I would hit him in the kneecap or on the arm with it, but he'd laugh it off and say, 'Throw it again' and that's how I was able to trust it.
"I think he got it from watching Tom Candiotti on the Dodgers, but I'm not sure he really knew how to throw it. Being a stubborn kid, I just wanted to throw hard, but now I'm thankful I have that pitch because I might be out of baseball right now."
On Wednesday, left-hander Jason Gurka worked around a hit and a walk while recording two strikeouts in the final two frames. Joseph homered and plated four runs and right fielder Henry Urrutia reached base safely three times and scored twice.
It was the Baysox's second shutout of the season. They also blanked the Fightin Phils in a 1-0 win on May 28, a game which saw Jake Pettit handcuff Reading's lineup over eight four-hit innings.
Rehabbing a strained quadriceps tendon in his left knee, John Lannan (0-1) allowed a pair of runs on seven hits and a walk while striking out one batter over seven innings for the Fightin Phils.