TORONTO -- R.A. Dickey had the movement and velocity he was looking for with his knuckleball, but it would be hard to tell based off his final pitching line.
Toronto's No. 1 starter was in a groove early and seemed destined for a strong outing against the struggling Astros but all it took was two swings to completely change his fortunes.
Dickey surrendered a pair of costly home runs and the Blue Jays offense continued to struggle as they failed to earn a sweep because of a 6-4 loss to the Astros on Thursday night at Rogers Centre.
"It was a real surprise when I have a knuckleball like that and have the outcome that we had," Dickey said after taking his second loss of the year. "I had really good command of it early on ... I was throwing it hard, it felt great coming out of my hand, and then we had just a couple of hiccups and it happened really quickly. It's not like things were spiralling out of control."
Home runs are what plagued Dickey throughout the entire 2013 season. He allowed the second most home runs in baseball with 35 and was just one shy of Oakland's A.J. Griffin for the top spot overall. This year started off differently as Dickey kept the ball in the park during each of his first two starts, but that changed in a big way against Houston.
Dickey opened the game with four scoreless innings before Astros left fielder Robbie Grossman sent a 3-0 knuckleball over the wall in right-center field. Two innings later, Dickey had more trouble as he allowed two batters to reach base before Jonathan Villar hit a three-run homer to center.
Grossman and Villar entered the game with a total of six home runs over the past two seasons. Neither player is really known for power, but it didn't matter on this night as they delivered the knockout blow.
"I felt like we did a good job," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "The guys got some pitches up. Robbie put a good swing on his pitch and Villar with the big three-run homer really gave a little bit more cushion. I felt like the guys had good at-bats and they made him get the ball up and that's important when you are facing a knuckleballer."
Dickey finished the seventh inning, but did not come back out for the eighth. He was charged with five runs on six hits and three walks while striking out four. He threw 71 of his 112 pitches for strikes and has now allowed a total of 11 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings this season.
It's an eerily similar to the way he started the 2013. After three starts last season, Dickey had allowed 11 earned runs in 17 innings. The hope was that a slow start could be avoided this year and while he did throw 6 2/3 scoreless innings vs the Yankees on April 5, there have been two other starts with less than ideal results.
"I literally felt I was going to throw a complete game early on," a frustrated Dickey said afterwards. "I thought, man, this is great, I feel great. Some of the pitches that they even hit were good knuckleballs. They did a good job. [Dallas Keuchel] who pitched for them pitched a fantastic game. He kept us at bay all night so I knew I had to be sharp, and I felt like I was, so it was really disappointing, the outcome."
Toronto's offense tried to claw its way back in the ninth inning, but for the most part the club's struggles at the plate continued. The second through sixth spots of the order combined to go 0-for-17 and through 10 games this season the Blue Jays have scored more than four runs just twice.
Colby Rasmus provided the only early spark as he went deep to right-center field in the bottom of the fifth. Rasmus entered the game with just three hits in 30 at-bats but is starting to show signs of breaking out of that slump. Rasmus hit a hard double on Wednesday night and followed that up with a three-hit performance on Thursday.
The hope is that the rest of the lineup will follow a similar path, but it hasn't happened yet. Edwin Encarnacion is now hitless in his last eight bats and batting just .162 on the season, Brett Lawrie has struck out nine times compared to four hits on the year and overall Toronto ranks 24th in baseball with a .298 on-base percentage.
"We couldn't get anything going against Keuchel," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of the Houston lefty who allowed just one run. "He shut us down in Spring Training pretty good. I like the guy, he's a pretty good pitcher. He moves the ball around and those guys give us trouble like that."
With the loss, Toronto came up short in its quest for the first sweep of the season. The Blue Jays have now dropped the final game in all three series they've played in this year.
The ability to close out series will have to change in the near future for this team to make a run, but for now they appear content with heading out on a nine-game road trip through Baltimore, Minnesota and Cleveland with a 5-5 record and a share of top spot in the American League East.
"I'm optimistic, we have been playing well, our pitchers are getting deep into games, our bullpen should be fresh," Dickey said. "We're doing a lot of really good things and the hope is that you can put together a streak, then put together another streak.
"We've got guys thar are healthy, we've got Jose [Reyes] who could be back soon, we've got all kinds of good things going on. I think our focus is going to be on that. We have a tough road trip coming up. Baltimore, Minnesota and Cleveland, it's tough, so we're going to have to bear down."