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At his own pace, Dickey primed to return to form

Blue Jays' ace expects stronger results with whirlwind 2013 season in past

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- R.A. Dickey finds himself in a completely different mindset than a year ago, when he was preparing to take the mound for the first time in a Blue Jays uniform.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- R.A. Dickey finds himself in a completely different mindset than a year ago, when he was preparing to take the mound for the first time in a Blue Jays uniform.

Last year, there seemed to be an endless list of distractions that prohibited Dickey from enjoying a prototypical Spring Training. There was a World Baseball Classic to prepare for, the pressure of living up to a blockbuster trade in the offseason and a film crew from "60 Minutes" following his every move.

This spring couldn't be more different. In many ways, it has allowed Dickey to get back to the basics, as he has reverted to the same training routine that made him one of the best pitchers in the game while with the Mets.

"I feel prepared; I feel confident, which is great," Dickey said in his final media availability before Opening Day. "Last year, I didn't feel very confident, simply because I didn't feel as prepared. I'm really looking forward to getting started. Being able to adjust my schedule this year in a way that really maximizes my preparedness has been great."

The biggest obstacle Dickey had to overcome last year was pitching in the Classic. Being asked to represent the United States in the international tournament was an honor the knuckleballer couldn't pass up, but it also came at a cost.

Dickey found himself rushing through the first couple of weeks of Spring Training to get ready in time. The workload increased more quickly than normal, and by early March, he was pitching in high-pressure situations instead of working out kinks in the laissez-faire environment of Florida.

The Classic was an experience that Dickey will never forget, but when it came to his performance with the Blue Jays, there were serious repercussions. The right-hander developed an upper-back and neck injury that lingered throughout the first two months of the regular season and became a seemingly endless talking point.

That won't be the case this year, as Dickey was able to go back to a more normal routine. He followed the same workout schedule he employed from 2010-12 with the Mets and believes that has gone a long way toward making sure he's prepared for the daily grind at an appropriate pace.

"I had to be game-ready a lot earlier in the spring than I did this year because you're competing in -- basically, what it came down to -- an Olympic event," Dickey said. "You just had to really step on the gas, and my body just wasn't ready for that. This year, I didn't have that. I could really take my time, and I did take my time.

"You're always trying to eliminate excuses. You don't want to have to say, 'Well, I don't feel great,' or 'I have a WBC,' or 'We weren't together.' Now, we're starting to eliminate all those excuses out there that you could hold onto, that could make you less than who you should be. So for me, being prepared and being healthy, those are not excuses for me."

Dickey also entered the 2013 season with rather unrealistic expectations. He was fresh off a National League Cy Young Award-winning season in which he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA in 34 games (33 starts) for the Mets. Those numbers are almost impossible to duplicate, but it was the type of performance Blue Jays fans wanted to see, especially after the club parted ways with top prospects Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to acquire Dickey during the 2012-13 offseason.

There's less hype surrounding Dickey this season, and that's probably a good thing for the right-hander and his teammates. His first-half numbers in 2013 were hardly impressive -- he posted a 4.69 ERA in 20 starts but followed that up with a 3.56 ERA the rest of the way to show how effective he can still be.

That's one of the main reasons the Blue Jays are once again expecting Dickey to anchor a rotation that also includes Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan. If Toronto is going to find itself in contention this year, the club will need Dickey to be at his best.

The first step in that process comes at 4:10 p.m. ET on Monday, when Dickey takes the mound for an Opening Day start against the Rays in St. Petersburg. The start marks the second time in Dickey's career that he has received the honor of opening a team's season, and the responsibility that goes with it is certainly not lost on a pitcher who spent almost 13 years toiling around various Major League organizations before finding a home with the Mets in 2010.

"I've worked my whole career to try to be trustworthy," said Dickey, who finished second in the American League last season with 224 2/3 innings. "I think that's something I've always longed to be for a team, is a trustworthy component.

"When you get the ball on Opening Day, the manager is saying, 'We trust you.' That's a special thing, and it's not something I take lightly at all, so I'm very excited and very honoured to have the honor."

Last year's distractions and excuses are no longer relevant, and Dickey accomplished everything he set out to do this spring. He reached the 100-pitch mark on two occasions and made enough progress that he was able to dial things back during his final outing, against the Yankees.

During that start, Dickey pitched just three innings. There was really nothing left to work on, and it was time for the real competition to begin.

"I came out of spring feeling good," Dickey said. "It was a good spring for me. My velocity is there. Now, it's just a matter of going to work."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.

Toronto Blue Jays, R.A. Dickey