The thing about Steven Wright's knuckleball is it's meant to be hit -- it's just not supposed to be hit hard.
At his best, opponents are still going to sneak a few base hits off Wright every outing. But when the game follows the script, Wright's knuckler can Houdini him out of most any jam.
Such was the case Monday night. Wright induced 14 groundouts, including four double plays, and needed just 96 pitches to hurl a seven-hit complete game in Pawtucket's 1-0 victory over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The shutout was his first in Triple-A and second since adopting the knuckleball in 2011. His first was a five-hit effort with Double-A Akron on May 6, 2012.
"The knuckleball is a contact pitch," said the 28-year-old acquired via trade last June. "When you got them pounding it into the ground, you're giving yourself an opportunity. You're going to give up hits, but the more you get the ball hit on the ground, the more chances you have of getting outs."
The formula worked perfectly Monday. The right-hander induced his first double play in the second, evading a first-and-second, no-out jam by fielding the ball himself and tossing it to shortstop Xander Bogaerts to begin the twin killing. Wright got a groundout from Walter Ibarra the next at-bat to end the frame.
Bogaerts was involved in three of the four double plays, including a memorable turn in the top of the eighth.
"He's so quick to get rid of the ball, and that helped me out today," Wright said of Boston's No. 1 prospect. "There was a big double play today where he had to stride to his right, and he got there so quick, got rid of the ball, got [second baseman Justin] Henry a perfect feed that allowed him to make that turn.
"If the ball goes anywhere else, it's hard to make that turn for as hard as those guys were running."
Wright began the season as a candidate to contribute quickly at the Major League level. He was added to the team's 40-man roster and made his Red Sox debut April 23, allowing five earned runs on six hits over 3 2/3 innings against the Athletics.
The outing was his lone appearance with Boston, and he scuffled in many of his starts back with Pawtucket afterward. During a five-start stretch from May 20-June 11, he allowed 22 earned runs and didn't pitch more than six innings as he struggled to command the knuckleball.
A second-round pick by Cleveland in the 2006 Draft, Wright is still fine-tuning his delivery of the pitch. Similar to R.A. Dickey, the right-hander tosses his knuckler with above-average velocity, running the pitch up over 80 mph.
While the knuckler's movement has been good throughout the season, Wright's command of the pitch has wavered, though, he thinks he's made strides over his past four starts. That stretch also includes eight one-run innings against Buffalo on June 16, and his ERA in that time is 2.25.
"I'm still new to throwing the pitch," Wright said. "I stride as far as my leg goes. What I mean by that is, other pitchers like to drive off the mound. I drive off the mound, but I try to let the foot just fall. That allows my hand to stay kind of from straight back to straight forward and keep somewhat of a whip.
"My hand stays on a straight path. When I stride too far, what happens is my elbow will start to drop and I'll start to push the ball. What happens is the ball will move, but it doesn't have that late drop. That's what makes the knuckleball good, is having the ball going in a downward angle."
He said he's made steady strides over the past four starts and the bullpen sessions in between, and Monday's outing was the result.
"Me and [pitching coach Rich Sauveur], we've been working on how to keep it in the strike zone more without jeopardizing the movement," he said. "Each outing with the side session and going into games, I've been able to find the common denominator with my stride and my hand to keep the ball starting at a good plane to get more strikes."