On Sunday -- a day after he allowed five runs for the third straight start -- Indians farmhand Steven Wright was, in a word, flummoxed. He knew what his knuckleball was doing wrong, but he couldn't figure out why.
Seeking the answer, Wright phoned Charlie Hough, who spun and danced the pitch for a quarter-century in the Major Leagues. After a 20-minute conversation, Wright was set straight.
"I am lucky," he said, "to have him in my reach."
So are the Akron Aeros.
Working with an improved knuckler, Wright took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning Friday as the Indians' Double-A affiliate blanked the Altoona Curve, 3-0, at Canal Park.
"I got to the point where the hitters weren't attacking it. It was moving far more than I was accustomed to," Wright said of his recent struggles. "I was telling [Hough] the type of movement that I was getting. He hit it right on the nose, what I was doing.
"The way we explain it is pitching down a hallway: You want to go straight through."
On June 27, July 2 and July 7 -- three starts in which he went 0-2 and allowed 15 runs on 19 hits over 15 2/3 frames -- there were too many moving parts. When, for example, his left shoulder flew open, his knuckler didn't stay on the same plane as his fastball and hitters had more time to gauge whether it would tumble into or stay out of the strike zone.
In his first bullpen side session following the July 7 outing against Bowie, Wright said the difference in Hough-helped command "was like night and day." Then he used the same mechanical simplification in what was tantamount to another side session -- the second inning of Wednesday's Eastern League All-Star Game, where he struck out two of the three batters he faced.
"I was over-complicating myself. It was just simplifying," he said. "My primary goal was to kill the spin on the ball and throw it for a strike."
Signs of his improvement didn't arrive with the first pitch Friday as Wright (7-6) walked four batters over the first four innings.
"I was leaving it up in the zone. With the All-Star break and everything, I was just trying to throw strikes, but it wasn't having that drop," said Wright, a 2006 second-round Draft pick. "I had the five walks, hurt my pitch count but didn't hurt my team."
That's because he didn't yield a hit until Adalberto Santos singled on the first pitch of the seventh inning.
"I threw a knuckleball. It definitely danced and moved and it jammed him pretty good, but he got enough of it to dump it into center field," Wright said. "Good piece of hitting. Good piece of pitching. I wouldn't change a thing."
Santos was Wright's final batter. The 27-year-old right-hander threw 54 of 102 pitches in the zone. He estimated he threw 80 percent knucklers, fanning four.
"I was throwing my sinker for strikes, my cutter was a good pitch when I was behind in the count and I still have the four-seam [fastball] to buy me a strike," he said.
With all four offerings in tow, Wright carried a no-hit bid into the seventh for the second time this season. He completed 6 1/3 innings before yielding a base knock in his June 7 win over New Britain.
"You obviously know when you look up there and see the zeros on the scoreboard," he said, "but I didn't let it affect me."
Wright, who also has received rare knuckleball wisdom from from the likes of Mets' All-Star R.A. Dickey and former big leaguer Tom Candiotti, boasts the Eastern League's third-stingiest ERA (2.46) through 17 outings. With such results, it's fair to ask, is he getting into the advice-giving business?
"I had a guy this past weekend -- Harrisburg, big right-hander [Kevin Pucetas] -- and he was starting to throw it. [James] Avery from [Erie] had a really good one. He was able to kill the spin on it," Wright said. "That was what was great about the All-Star Game, to have everybody come up to me and talk to me about the knuckleball. It gave me this second wind, made me feel good.
"I just relay what I get told from Charlie, R.A. and Candiotti because I'm new to this as well."
Bryan Price and Preston Guilmet, who earned his 13th save with a 1-2-3 ninth, pitched the final three innings for Akron, securing a three-hit shutout.
Curve starter Kyle McPherson (1-4) gave up three runs on eight hits, including Thomas Neal's fourth-inning solo shot -- over six innings.