That was a real triumph for Gamboa. For the last two years, he’s been transitioning to a knuckleball pitcher. Last March, he worked 4 2/3 scoreless innings in big league exhibition games, making a solid impression, and he followed that up by pitching to a 4.06 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk. He seemed to be on a path to the majors.
Just as he had completed a four-start stretch pitching to an ERA of 1.44, Gamboa was hit with a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball after testing positive for exogenous testosterone, a performance-enhancing substance in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. The suspension lasted from June 13 to Aug. 5. Gamboa finished the year at Double-A Bowie and then became a minor league free agent.
But he was pitching well in winter ball in Mexico and found his way back to the Orioles, the team that drafted him in 2008. In 10 starts in Mexico, Gamboa, using about a 50-50 mix of knuckleballs and conventional pitches, went 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA. Over 68 2/3 innings, he walked seven and fanned 56.
Now, after all that and the uncertain few weeks of being a free agent, he is trying to finally make the major leagues for the first time.
“It is a scary situation because you have no job for a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months,” Gamboa said. “You are nobody at all and some guys don’t get jobs. You have this dream early on in your life and there are times there when that dream could disappear. It was nerve-wracking.
“I feel comfortable with the Orioles. I love the coaching staff. This is family pretty much. Very happy to be back.”
Last year in those final weeks, Gamboa knew he had some repair work to do with the organization.
“I pitched in Bowie and there was some rust,” he said. “I tried to be that Tim Wakefield-type that everyone wanted me to be. I attempted it and walked some people and it was frustrating. But there were some outings where I was getting to where I needed to be as a knuckleball pitcher.”
Then, for the second year in a row, Gamboa headed for winter ball hoping to revive his career.
“When I went to Mexico, you have to do well or go home,” said Gamboa, who is now at the Orioles minicamp in Sarasota. “I went with what felt comfortable, with kind of a hybrid mix (50 percent knuckleballs) pitcher. Fortunately, things went well and I kept working on my craft.
“Not only have I been working on my knuckleball, I worked on all my pitches. Kind of perfected some little details of my mechanics and movement of the pitches. Obviously, Mexico is not the big leagues, but they are hitters and they can do damage.”
Now he waits to find out what mix of pitches he’ll be using in 2015. He knows the Orioles really want to produce a knuckleballer, but also that when his knuckler percentage goes up, his effectiveness goes somewhat down.
Are the O’s OK with a 50-50 mix?
“I know they want me to be a knuckleball pitcher and I’ve kind of become this hybrid pitcher that obviously is unheard of,” Gamboa said during a recent telephone interview. “No one really does that. Either you become a knuckler because you can’t throw 90 (mph) or you become a dominant pitcher like a Kevin Gausman and guys like that. I am kind of a mix between that.
“Last year, maybe they were not a big fan of that. But after pitching so well with that mix for two years now in Mexico, I was able to talk to (executive vice president) Dan Duquette about it and we are trying to have a plan for 2015. Hope to sit down with the staff during minicamp and figure out what is expected of me for this year. I feel comfortable and confident right now.
“When I threw a no-hitter and one-hitter in Bowie, I was 50-50. I am able to get outs and that is the big key. If I can throw a knuckleball 100 percent of the time for a strike, I see no reason to do anything other than that. But it is difficult.”
In this interview last summer, Gamboa said he was not trying to cheat or take a shortcut by using a performance-enhancing substance. Gamboa has dealt with hypothyroidism for years and believes a medication he took to help that led to his suspension.
Gamboa, who turned 31 in December, said he won’t risk another suspension by taking any drug that could be questionable and he will not pursue a therapeutic use exemption through MLB in an attempt to get cleared to take that medication this season.
“No, that is something I am still battling through it and everything with that seems to be borderline (for potentially producing a positive test),” he said. “Trying my best to fight it out. Just have to do what I can and make things happen. I am able to pitch. I am not taking it for baseball, I took it to live a functional life and not have ups and downs, the weight gain and tiredness.”
Now 42-41 with a 3.44 ERA in 693 career innings, will Gamboa finally make the bigs this year?