The last time Ryon Healy had faced a knuckleball pitcher?
“Never in my life,” he said.
Yet as Healy stepped in against Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey for the first time Saturday, the A’s rookie had an idea of how to attack baseball’s most elusive pitch.
“You’ve got to have a really small zone,” Healy said. “You’re just looking for a location out of the hand, something with elevation. Then you just trust your hand-eye coordination to take over.”
In a 2-2 count, Dickey threw a 66-mph pitch that fluttered back over the middle of the plate, and Healy yanked it into the left-field seats for a three-run homer, his first major-league hit. Khris Davis added two solo homers and Sonny Gray won for the first time since April 22 as the A’s beat the Blue Jays 5-4 at the Coliseum.
When the A’s called up Healy from Triple-A Nashville on Friday and handed him their third-base job, the move signaled a shift in focus from this season to evaluating younger players in the organization for the future. Still, the A’s have won consecutive games out of the All-Star break against a Toronto team that entered the series as the second wild-card team in the American League.
Healy, whose arrival displaced Danny Valencia at third base, went hitless in his debut Friday. Between Double A and Triple A this year, he hit .326 with 14 home runs. His first homer in a major-league uniform keyed a four-run second inning Saturday after the A’s fell behind 2-0 in the top of the inning.
“Once it went out, just a big rush of adrenaline ran through my body,” Healy said. “The guys standing at home plate, they gave me big high-fives. Unlike the guys in the dugout, who gave me the silent treatment – which I loved.”
Healy had about a dozen family members and friends, including his parents, in the stands, and cameras showed him pointing to them as he returned to the dugout.
“That made it more special,” he said.
Though Valencia was their designated hitter Saturday, the A’s have made it clear Healy’s arrival means a reduction in Valencia’s playing time. That could be an awkward situation for a young player; Valencia is a veteran and has spent most of this season as the cleanup hitter. But through two games, Healy has not looked nervous in the clubhouse or at third base, where he has handled all of his chances.
“I like his energy,” Davis said. “He comes out not scared. He’s big and physical. I can’t wait to see more.”
Davis exerted his own physicality on two baseballs Saturday, homering off Dickey in the second and sixth innings. The latter, Davis’ 22nd this season, was an opposite-field drive into the bleachers in right-center field that left manager Bob Melvin shaking his head.
“You could probably (count) on one hand how many (right-handed) guys can hit the ball that far to right field,” Melvin said. “It looked like a golf ball – just kept getting smaller and smaller.”
The three home runs were just enough to make a winner of Gray, who pitched six innings and ended a streak of 12 winless starts. Gray, the A’s struggling ace, still has a 6.01 ERA over his last 13 starts but held a potent Toronto lineup scoreless after Edwin Encarnacion’s leadoff homer in the third. He called it “a step-ish in the right direction.”
“I don’t think it’s any secret things haven’t gone as you would hope the majority of the year,” Gray said. “I think after the second it was just a thing like, stop fighting myself. Just kind of trust yourself and go out and make pitches and don’t get tied down on every single pitch that doesn’t go your way.”
Gray said Healy has “done everything thus far that you can ask” and that defensively, “I don’t think there’s been anything that looked too fast for him.”
Healy nearly had his fourth RBI when his single in the seventh appeared to score Marcus Semien from second base, but Semien was ruled out after Toronto challenged the call. Healy settled for the ball from his first home run – retrieved from the fan who caught it for a signed ball – and a whipped cream pie in the face and Gatorade shower during his postgame TV interview.
“My brand-new cleats got drenched with Gatorade,” Healy said. “But they keep telling me, ‘It’s the big leagues; you can get new ones.’ So I’ll have to look into that.”