Eddie Gamboa knew his baseball shelf life was nearing expiration.
The former Merced High right-hander had toiled in the minor leagues the last six years, pitching solidly in the Baltimore Orioles organization but stuck low on the depth chart.
"It has been a little frustrating," Gamboa said. "You do everything the organization asks you to. I've moved from starter to the bullpen and back. You pitch pretty well, but there always seems to be somebody blocking me."
Gamboa, who pitches for Double-A Bowie (Md.), needed to do something different to distinguish himself. So he added a knuckleball to his four-pitch arsenal.
The experiment has had its ups and downs, but peaked last week when he tossed a no-hitter in a rain-shortened, seven-inning victory over the Harrisburg Senators on Sunday. In his previous start on June 23, he took a no-hitter into the eighth.
"I became aware of the no-hitter maybe around the sixth inning," Gamboa said his start against Harrisburg. "I go out for the sixth and it just starts pouring. All I could think is 'Why not?'
"I had basically no grip on the ball, so for the seventh inning I went entirely to the knuckleball. I figured if it was getting broken up, they were going to have to get me on that."
Gamboa's has allowed just one hit in his last 14 1/3 innings pitched and has a scoreless innings steak of 16. Gamboa is 4-5 with a 3.48 ERA.
He said a chance encounter in spring training gave his career new life.
"I was playing catch with a knuckleballer named Zach Staniewicz in spring training," Gamboa said. "I've always messed around with a knuckleball going back to my days at Merced High under Coach (Lou) Souza. I threw him a couple and he told me he was meeting with Phil Niekro later to work on his knuckleball, and asked if I wanted to come along."
In the very small fraternity of knuckleball pitchers, none is more distinguished than Niekro. He won 318 games in his 24-year career and has helped teach guys like former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield.
Gamboa said he threw a couple of knuckleballs in front of Niekro and that the former long-time Atlanta Braves went immediately to Orioles general manager Dan Duquette.
"Dan Duquette told me, 'All right, Eddie, you're a knuckballer now,' " Gamboa said. "That pretty much was that. I think it's been a real blessing, because I'm not sure Dan Duquette really knew who I was before that.
"There's a reason that not a lot of guys throw a knuckleball. It's given me gray hairs at times trying to control it. But I'm not your typical knuckleballer, so I can fall back on my other pitches if it's not working."
Gamboa, 28, reached Double-A Bowie (Md.) in his first full minor-league season, but has pitched in only four Triple-A games the last four years.
And while Gamboa's career numbers — 35-28 with a 3.11 ERA and 420 strikeouts to just 120 walks — are nice, Baltimore has spent the last half decade using high draft picks on pitchers.
Gamboa hopes the knuckleball will set him apart from the rest.
"The main thing is, it's helped extend my career and given my dreams of playing in the majors new hope," he said.
MINOR LEAGUE ROUNDUP
Gamboa is one of eight current minor leaguers with local ties. Here is a look at how their seasons are going:
Jake Jefferies, Triple-A New Orleans
Jefferies just can't seem to catch a break in 2013. The former Buhach Colony product has struggled to see playing time with three rostered catchers. He played in one game in June, and that outing landed him on the disabled list.
Cody Martin, Triple-A Gwinnett
So much for just a spot call-up. Martin has flourished in three Triple-A starts, surrendering three runs in three starts — going a full seven innings in each. The former Dos Palos ace has 24 strikeouts and five walks in that span.
Bradin Hagens, Double-A Mobile
Hagens closed out June the same way he started — with excellent pitching. The former Merced College right-hander bounced back from his only hiccup in the last two months with two rock-solid starts, picking up a win and allowing just one run in 11 innings. He's 8-3 with a 2.81 ERA.
Dylan Floro, Low-A Bowling Green
Floro finished June with one of his most dominating efforts to date, striking out eight and allowing one run in six complete innings.
The former BC hurler is making things look easy in his first full minor-league season. Floro went 4-0 in four starts in June, allowing four runs and striking out 22 to just four walks.
Brett Mooneyham, Low-A Hagerstown
After missing all of May with an injury, Mooneyham got five starts in June, going 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA. The former Buhach Colony fireballer tossed six scoreless innings last weekend to improve to 4-2.
Jake Sisco, Low-A Lake County
Sisco had a nice run end with his worst start of the season last week. The former Merced College ace allowed six runs on seven hits in five innings. Sisco is 4-6 with a 3.55 ERA.
Shawn Stuart, Low-A Short-Season Tri-Valley
Stuart has had some uncharacteristic control issues to start the season, walking nine batters in 5 2/3 innings pitched.
It's bitten him in his last two outings as he's allowed five runs in his last two-thirds innings pitched. That ended a stretch of four straight hitless and scoreless relief appearances for the former Merced College star.