Dickey had the knuckleball working again during pregame warmups, Mets catcher Mike Nickeas realized, when he was dropping pitches because he couldn't keep up with the movement. The defensive minded Nickeas has had difficulty hanging on to Dickey's latest pitch in his arsenal -- the rising knuckleball.
Nickeas pointed to that pitch as the reason for Dickey's 29 strikeouts over his last three starts, tied for the second highest total in the Major Leagues over a three-game span this season. Dickey is the first Mets pitcher, since Pedro Martinez in 2006, to record back-to-back double-digit strikeout games.
"He's learning how to control that elevated knuckleball where it looks like it's going to come down and then just pops up again," Nickeas said. "That's the one that I have trouble with. It's incredible the way that thing moves."
The electric performance, Dickey's seventh quality start in a row, comes after the 37-year-old rang up 11 strikeouts against Pittsburgh earlier this week. Sunday, Dickey picked up right where he left off, holding the Padres hitless for 4 1/3 innings from the third until a one-out double by left fielder Jesus Guzman in the seventh.
"When you don't see it [often], it's different," Padres manager Bud Black said of Dickey's knuckleball. "You really can't simulate it or prepare for it in BP. He was throwing strikes and getting a lot of called strikes. He kept pumping the strike zone with the knuckleball. It was dancing."
The Mets supplied Dickey with some early help, scoring in the first frame for the second day in a row. David Wright drew a two-out walk, then stole second base and arrived at third on a passed ball. That set up an RBI single for second baseman Daniel Murphy, giving Dickey a lead he would never relinquish.
San Diego starter Edison Volquez prevented further damage until the fifth inning, when Mike Baxter drilled a double down the left-field line. He would advance to third and then score on two wild pitches by Volquez. The Padres starter pitched 5 2/3 innings, walking three and striking out five.
The Padres would threaten in the sixth after a ball got past Mike Nickeas on a strikeout and shortstop Andy Parrino advanced to first safely. Parrino would reach third, but Dickey shut the door in the sixth, striking out Everth Cabrera to end the inning.
Dickey ran into trouble before exiting the game in the eighth inning, leaving the game after hitting Nick Hundley with a pitch and walking Chris Denorfia.
"He was pitching great," manager Terry Collins said. "We had the two-run lead, and the inning before, he left a couple balls up they hit pretty hard, and we know when he starts getting the ball up, it's dangerous. He said he was starting them a little low, so I said, 'You've done a great job, we're bringing in a reliever.'"
Left-handed specialist Tim Byrdak finished what Dickey started in the eighth inning, escaping trouble by getting the next two batters out. The scoreless appearance was Byrdak's 14th in a row without surrendering a run, dating back to May 4.
"Having a guy like Tm Byrdak behind you, you feel pretty confident," Dickey said. "Those guys were seeing me for the third time through the order. I didn't put up too much of a fight."
Closer Frank Francisco closed out a perfect ninth inning for his 13th save of the season, tying him for fifth most in the Major Leagues. Francisco had come under scrutiny over the past few weeks after several erratic outings, but Collins stuck with his closer through the turmoil. Since May 17, Francisco hasn't allowed a run.
While the Mets got by on pitching on Sunday, David Wright finished the game 0-for-3 with a run scored and a walk, lowering his season average to .382. Sunday was Wright's third consecutive game without a hit.
"David Wright may hit .400," Collins said. "I'm not saying he's not going to hit .400, but you're going to run into sections -- and he's played long enough to know there's going to be streaks when there's a down time. That's when the rest of this team has to pick it up if he's not hot."
With the win, his seventh of the year, Dickey moves into a tie for the most in the Major Leagues. The Mets are now 8-2 with Dickey on the hill this season. The Mets shut out San Diego for the final two games of the series.
"Starting pitching: That's what it is, that's what the game is about," Collins said. "The game's about having a guy on the bump going out and giving you quality innings and keeping you in games and we did that."