PEORIA, Ariz. — Kenji Johjima flung his mitt one direction, but the baseball went the other. When he juked, the ball jived. He went hither, it went yon.
In a scene the Seattle Mariners pray won’t happen during the regular season, Johjima struggled to catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleballs during a session in the bullpen Monday.
He caught most of them. But with several, Johjima employed the Bob Uecker method of catching the knuckler: Wait until it stops rolling, then pick it up.
Catching a knuckleball is new for Johjima, who has caught Dickey in the bullpen twice at spring training and probably will catch him in Thursday’s exhibition game against the Padres.
So far, Johjima hasn’t seen enough of Dickey’s knuckleball to predict how it will break, if that’s possible.
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be suffering now,” he said after Monday’s practice.
Dickey called Johjima’s work a big improvement over his first time.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable using the mitt he has,” Dickey said.
Johjima has used his standard red catcher’s mitt but plans to experiment with others, including a couple of larger, knuckleball-specific mitts that Dickey should get soon from the Rawlings.
“I’m still in the process of testing things right now,” said Johjima, who is eager to catch Dickey in Thursday’s game. “If I said I didn’t want to catch him during spring training, there’s no way I could catch him during the season.”
Unlike some teams with knuckleball pitchers who have specific catchers handle them — Boston’s Doug Mirabelli usually catches Tim Wakefield, for example — the Mariners won’t always have that luxury.
Because Dickey would make the team as a reliever, the M’s can’t always replace Johjima in the middle of a game even though backup catcher Jamie Burke is familiar with Dickey after catching his knucklers two years ago at Oklahoma City.
So Johjima must learn how to catch the knuckleball, and he’s learning plenty of lessons from both Dickey and Burke.
“It takes lazy hands to be able to do it consistently,” Dickey said. “A lot of guys are taught to go get the ball, but with the knuckleball you can’t do that. You’ve got to wait. The minute you go out and get it, it will break and go off your shinguard.”
When the ball does bounce off the mitt, Johjima says it’s important that he keep it in front of him.
“The last thing you want to do is get that ball behind you,” he said. “As long as I keep that ball in front, I should be fine.”
Hair follies: In addition to his menacing look from the mound, relief pitcher Arthur Rhodes is fast becoming one of the most feared barbers in Peoria.
One day after Rhodes’ handiwork left a half-dozen relievers with buzz cuts after a lost bet during a fielding drill, he put his clippers to use on one of the best-styled pitchers in camp .
Anderson Garcia began the day with bushy dreadlocks. He ended it with the sides and back of his head trimmed to his scalp, with the dreads still standing on the top of his head.
“He looks like a pineapple,” Johjima said.
Sunday, relievers J.J. Putz, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Eric O’Flaherty, Chris Reitsma, Mark Lowe and Rhodes had their hair lopped off after their group lost a competition during a fielding drill.
Rowland-Smith wore a creative look with a modified mullet — a bowl-shaped crewcut over most of his head but long hair in the back.
Of note: Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus spent his first full day at camp wearing an “Ancient Mariner” cap given by his wife and still euphoric over being voted into the Hall of Fame last week. “I’ll probably get up there at the induction ceremony and nothing will come out of my mouth,” he said. “If that happens, it’ll be the first time in my life.” … McLaren is using players from the minor league camp as baserunners during defensive drills, preferring to protect his own players from injury. “I’ve always been uncomfortable using our outfielders,” McLaren said. “These kids have been here working out and they’re in better shape than some of our guys and they give us a little better look. … Pitchers for the first two exhibition games are Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, Dickey, Brandon Morrow and Eric O’Flaherty on Thursday against the Padres, and Erik Bedard, Cha Seung Baek, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jake Woods and Sean Green on Friday against the Giants in Scottsdale. … Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre prefers to limit the number of pitches, not innings, for his pitchers at spring training. “A lot of times he’ll send them back out (in an exhibition game) if they have had some real quick innings,” McLaren said. … DH Jose Vidro returned to regular work Monday, one day after he was hit on his left knee by a pitch from Rowland-Smith. … Today’s work will begin about an hour earlier than normal because the Mariners will take part in their annual spring training golf tournament against the Padres.
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com