PORTLAND, Maine — When Steven Wright was 9 years old, he was playing catch with former major league pitcher Frank Pastore at a baseball clinic and Pastore threw him a knuckleball.
“I was intrigued how you could throw a baseball with no spin on it and have it move forward,” said Wright.
Fast forward 17 years.
“In 2010, I started messing around with the knuckleball in New Hampshire,” said Wright, who was pitching for the Akron Aeros of the Class AA Eastern League. “Our pitching coach, Greg Hibbard, saw it and thought it was pretty good.”
Hibbard and several of his teammates suggested that he start using it in games.
Right-hander Wright has fast-tracked his career with the knuckleball and, after an impressive first outing with the Portland Sea Dogs on Sunday in which he beat Erie 11-2 with six innings of five-hit, one-run ball, he was called up to AAA Pawtucket on Wednesday.
Wright was traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Red Sox for first baseman Lars Anderson on July 31.
At the time he was traded, he led qualifiers in the Eastern League in batting average against him (.207), was second in ERA (2.49) and fourth in strikeouts (101). He was an Eastern League All-Star.
Last year was his first full season throwing the knuckleball and he was 4-8 with a 4.58 ERA for four teams in the Indians organization.
“I consider this my first year, to be honest,” said Wright, who will turn 28 on Aug. 30. “Last year, I threw a different [knuckleball] every outing. I kept trying something new to try to figure it out.”
“This year, I’ve had the same kind of mechanics, the same delivery and I’ve thrown the same type of knuckleball the whole year,” said Wright.
“I’ve been throwing it harder [faster] this year. I haven’t been trying to throw it harder, it’s just the way the velocity has been. I threw a slower knuckleball last year, but I wasn’t consistent with it.”
He pitched winter ball in Panama with the specific purpose of improving his knuckler.
“I learned a lot. It was definitely beneficial,” said Wright, who worked on keeping the same delivery as he would if he was throwing a fastball.
He has done plenty of homework the last three seasons.
He conferred with many former knuckleballers like Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and former Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield during his transformation.
“He has done his due diligence in respect to searching out guys [who threw knuckleballs],” said Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper. “They have been a great resource and have ultimately helped him gain an appreciation of what it feels like, physically and mentally, to throw that pitch. It’s a small fraternity.”
Wright said the input he has received from knuckleball pitchers has been invaluable in his development.
“Having them tell me stuff has enabled me to wrap my mind around it,” said Wright.
His knuckler is a good one, according to Kipper.
“A good knuckleball lacks spin, and his lacks spin,” said Kipper. “And he has been able to throw it in the strike zone. You need to be able to throw it in the zone early in the count to get guys to swing at it.”
He said Wright is committed to the knuckleball and is “really engaged in it.”
“He loves talking about what he has learned [from the other knuckleballers],” said Kipper.
He added that Wright is a “real good worker and a tremendous person to be around.”
Wright said he throws the knuckleball 70-80 percent of the time. He also has a fastball, curve and a cutter.
Wright was happy about the trade.
“Being with the Red Sox is the best possible situation for me to be in,” said Wright. “It’s the best organization for a knuckleballer.”
Having the retired Wakefield as a resource will be valuable, he said.
Wakefield is currently an in-studio analyst for Red Sox games on the New England Sports Network.
Wright, a native of Moreno Valley, Calif., was a former second team All-American at the University of Hawaii after going 11-2 with a 2.30 ERA as a junior in 2006.
He was drafted by Cleveland in the second round following the 2006 season.
Kipper said the next challenge for Wright will be to change speeds with the knuckleball.
Kipper said Wright’s promotion is well deserved.
Wright said it has “always been my dream to pitch in the big leagues.”
“But I never thought in a million years I would throw a knuckleball in professional baseball let alone have an opportunity to throw it in the big leagues,” said Wright. “But I try not to think about that. I just want to keep throwing strikes and pitching deep into games.”
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington told MLB.com that Wright “does a lot of things we feel give a guy a chance to succeed with that pitch in the big leagues. He’s athletic, repeats his delivery, he can throw a fastball and breaking ball for a strike and the action on his knuckleball is major-league quality.”
Furbush is progressing
South Portland lefty Charlie Furbush of the Seattle Mariners said he is progressing after suffering a strained left triceps against Kansas City on July 17 and going on the disabled list.
The 26-year-old has made two rehab appearances for the Tacoma Rainiers in the Pacific Coast League and has allowed three hits and two runs in two innings with four strikeouts and a walk.
“It’s coming but it’s not 100 percent yet,” said Furbush. “I’m going to keep working my butt off to get back as soon as I can. But I’m not going to push it too much and get hurt worse.”
Furbush, who undergoes daily treatments for his arm, has been having a breakthrough year as a multipurpose reliever for the Mariners, going 4-2 with a 2.17 ERA over 37⅓ innings with 47 strikeouts, 11 walks and just 19 hits allowed.
He is expected to pitch at least once more for Tacoma before being recalled by Seattle.