It is a pitch that even the most seasoned big league hitter has limited experience with -- if any. New York Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball, but it is not your classic floater. This pitch has teeth.
The Nationals know that better than most teams. Dickey has started more games against Washington than any other opponent in his 10-year career. That experience mattered little in a 3-1 loss to the Mets on Thursday afternoon.
Dickey pitched 71?3 shutout innings with four hits allowed and eight strikeouts, and the 37-year-old journeyman is making a startling case to be among this year's Cy Young Award candidates in the National League. Washington (32-23) managed to hit just two balls out of the infield off Dickey through the first six innings, and one of those was an out. He is now 9-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 12 starts.
"He's always been tough. It's just so much different facing him because he throws a knuckleball so hard," Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "And it seems like he can cut it. He can sink it. I don't know if he is doing that on purpose, but it sure seems like he is."
Zimmerman's leadoff single in the seventh inning finally made Dickey sweat. Adam LaRoche followed with a walk. But New York's shaky bullpen was nowhere to be found. Instead, Dickey induced a fielder's choice ground out and then got Ian Desmond to hit a ball to third baseman David Wright for a double play.
In the eighth, Dickey recorded an out, gave up a single to Jhonatan Solano and finally departed. Washington had life when reliever Bobby Parnell immediately walked Rick Ankiel to bring up the top of the order. But Steve Lombardozzi grounded out to first, and rookie Bryce Harper hit a ball softly toward short. The throw to first just beat him, and the Nats' last, best chance was done.
"Knuckleballs," Harper cracked when asked what he saw from Dickey. "No, he's very good. He throws it hard, throws it soft. Sometimes it starts at your face and then goes down into the strike zone. He's a pretty unbelievable pitcher."
Meanwhile, Washington starter Chien-Ming Wang walked a tightrope. He allowed eight hits and walked three batters in 51?3 innings but only gave up two runs on a Lucas Duda homer in the fifth. Daniel Murphy added an insurance run with a single in the seventh. Zimmerman ripped a home run to center to lead off the ninth, but the Nats never put another man on base. It was their ninth chance to sweep a three- or four-game series this season and the eighth time they lost.
"It's pretty good to have [nine] chances to sweep. I guess we could look at it that way," Zimmerman said. "That means we've won the series a lot, too. It's one of those things if we sweep a series it's nice, but winning the series is the ultimate goal, and if we continue to do that then we'll be just fine."