Knuckleballer Gamboa feels at home with O's

Rule 5 pick Mesa stands out to Showalter after first bullpen session

February 15th, 2018

SARASOTA, Fla. -- walked into Ed Smith Stadium earlier this week all smiles. In many ways, the knuckleballer feels back at home at Orioles Spring Training.

"[I'm] happy to be back, absolutely," the 33-year-old right-hander said. "The organization that I spent eight years with, and I left, kind of ventured off, but in a weird way, this is family. It feels like family, although it's a business. It feels good to come back and know most of the guys and coaching staff here."

Gamboa, who signed a Minor League contract with the O's on Jan. 19, has fully committed to the knuckleball. He threw his first bullpen session of the spring on Wednesday and is hopeful that the pitch that once got him to the Major Leagues can now get him back and help him stay there.

"I'm at that point now in my career where I feel better throwing it now. I think that's the biggest thing, just having the confidence in it," Gamboa said.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"I always wanted to commit to it. But it's like if someone were to come to you and go, 'Hey, I want you to throw left-handed.' It's tough, and to do it on the biggest stage in baseball [is tough]. But for me, it's just a confidence thing and throwing it a lot. Now I can pick up a ball and throw it and kill the spin. And I feel a lot better coming back to a coaching staff that believes in you and likes the knuckleball. Not everybody likes the knuckleball. I feel good about it, very happy and excited to move forward."

Gamboa, who has texted with fellow knucklers and R.A. Dickey, has adapted to the stresses that come with the pitch: wild pitches, walks and passed balls.

"Again, that was something that was hard for me, because being a pitcher, I used to have great control. I controlled the running game. All these things that I did well, now it's like, OK, I have to kind of accept them," Gamboa said. "Phil Niekro was somebody who really explained that to me. You've got to accept it. You've got to move forward. You can walk the bases loaded, and you can get out of it, all in one inning.

"It's been great. The knuckleball, I've been able to meet a lot of great people, a lot of Hall of Famers. Just taking it all in. It's been a wonderful experience, and I'm excited for what's to come."

A non-roster invitee in big league camp, Gamboa pitched to a 1.35 ERA in seven games -- all relief -- with Tampa Bay in 2016. He made his debut on Sept. 2 of that year. He spent the majority of 2017 in Triple-A in the Rangers and Dodgers' systems. In 24 Minor League appearances last season (23 starts), Gamboa had a 5.52 ERA.

"When you're young, you think you want to make it to the big leagues. Never did I realize it would be as a knuckleball pitcher," Gamboa said. "But that's the pitch that got me to the big leagues, and again, since then, that's what I've been dedicating myself to, and throwing it as much as I can and trying to get better, more consistent with it is the key."

Mesa reminds Showalter of father

Orioles Rule 5 Draft pick Jose Mesa threw his first bullpen session for the O's on Thursday, and it was a little de ja vu for Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

"Oh my gosh, the high legs," Showalter said of Mesa, who is the son of the former big league pitcher of the same name. "His legs are up around his neck. Like his daddy, same set with the glove. Arm acts a little different. His son may be a little more over the top [with his arm slot].

"He's intriguing if you look at the background and the whole scheme of things."

That's precisely why Baltimore selected Mesa, who has never pitched above Double-A, from the Yankees' farm system.

"It was my mother's birthday that day, and we were praying for it. I hadn't been protected on the 40-man [roster], so we were praying for it," Mesa said. "And when the news came on, me and my dad were both listening and we both got excited. We were like, 'Man, it's the Orioles. That's where you came up.'"

The O's are looking at Mesa as a starter based on his success -- albeit a small sample size -- in Double-A last season. Mesa spent most of the year as a reliever, but he said pitching multiple innings and having days off in between makes the transition easier to starting. The right-hander started five games for Trenton last season.

"I'm definitely excited about it. It's a big step," Mesa said. "I'm just ready to take on whatever role they give me. Whatever they give me. If it's in the big league level, I'm excited about it. Just to be in baseball period, I'm excited about it. To be able to compete for a starting spot is just a blessing. It's beyond words."