When Steven Wright started throwing knuckleballs almost exclusively last year, his stat lines would be as unpredictable as the pitch itself. Some days were good, some days were bad.
But after an injury at the end of the regular season, he went back to his old mechanics in the Caribbean Leagues -- and he made a discovery.
"It was almost like a gift from God, because at end of the 2011 season, I strained a ligament in my finger," Wright said. "It hurt for a while to throw a knuckleball. ... I got back to where I used to be, throwing fastballs, sinkers, cutters, curveballs and using the knuckleball as an out pitch. When I started doing that, I started seeing not only that my knuckeball was better in terms of movement, but I was able to throw in the strike zone more consistently."
That approach has proved invaluable for the Indians farmhand this year, with the latest example coming Thursday. Wright (5-2) used the pitch to dominate New Britain, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning as the Double-A Akron Aeros defeated the Rock Cats, 2-1.
The 27-year-old right-hander ended up allowing one run over two hits over seven frames. He struck out six and walked five.
"I was throwing knuckleballs with good movement and was able to kill the spin and keep it in the zone," said Wright, who has allowed just three hits in his last 13 innings. "I threw enough strikes to keep them hitting, and when they did hit it, they put it on the ground."
The California native allowed all five walks in his first six innings, but was still able to hold New Britain without a run. His closest call came in the fourth when Chris Herrmann drew a free pass to lead off the frame and then advanced to third on a passed ball and wild pitch. The Rock Cats catcher was thrown out trying to score on a grounder to shortstop Juan Diaz.
Wright surrendered his first hit with one out in the seventh as Matt Rizzotti lined a double to center field. Two batters later, Chris Colabello smacked a double of his own to plate Rizzotti and end the potential shutout.
"Rizzotti's a really good hitter. I've faced him for a couple years now back to when he was with the Phillies," Wright said. "I threw him two really good knuckleballs and got him to swing and miss on one. I had him 0-2 or 1-2, threw a pretty good knuckleball in a good spot but it stayed flat. He kept his hands back well, was short and quick to the ball and hit it into the gap.
"I was little disappointed, because it's not very often you get an opportunity to get that deep without giving up a hit, but I had to get back and do what I had been doing."
A second-round selection in the 2006 Draft, Wright has spent parts of the past four seasons with Akron, but is currently enjoying his best campaign with the team. The University of Hawaii product ranks third in the Eastern League with a 1.67 ERA, complemented by 53 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings.
He owes part of that success to the mentors he's found over the past two years. He's talked with the Mets' R.A. Dickey, worked with former big leaguer Tom Candiotti and had a chance to throw a bullpen with Charlie Hough.
"[Hough] helped me simplify," Wright said. "With the knuckleball, there's not too many people out there that throw it or know anything about it. To have an opportunity to talk to him and get his insight -- because he did it for 20 years -- it was huge. It's a pitch that you don't know where it's going to go, but if you're throwing it right, it's hard to hit."
Wright has pitched sparingly at Triple-A Columbus over the past three years but has scuffled, allowing 14 runs in 19 innings (6.63 ERA). With his new-found approach, does he think he's ready for another shot with the Clippers?
"I'd obviously love to be there and love to be in Cleveland, but I try not to think about that," Wright said. "In the past, I've always thought of that and thought, 'I should be here or there' or whatnot. Right now, I'm really mentally trying to take it literally pitch by pitch. If I end up getting an opportunity to go to Columbus, that's great, and if I'm here all year, that's fine.
"I'm just trying to become more consistent, not only throwing good knuckleballs for strikes, but trying to keep that mentality. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, because that will take me out of my game. Just kill the spin and pound the zone with strikes."