MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Dickey's knuckler wows even Niekro

Dickey's knuckler wows even Niekro

Dickey's knuckler wows even Niekro
NEW YORK -- This is how extraordinarily effective R.A. Dickey has been of late: People came to Citi Field on Monday night expecting a shutout. Or more. Honest. A countdown to 27 consecutive outs began before the Mets batted. Twenty-six to go, 25 to go, 24 ..."

Nothing approaching this level of anticipation has gripped the Mets' home ballpark since late in the 1985 season when Dwight Gooden was at his career best and stingiest. That is how good Dickey has been.

He essentially plays catch with Josh Thole or Mike Nickeas for nine innings. The presence or stature of the batter is immaterial. Seldom does the guy with the bat interfere in any meaningful way. Dickey threw 114 pitches in nine innings against the Orioles Monday night, 15 were hit, one for a base hit. Wilson Betemit -- with a clean single in the fifth inning -- is the one who interfered. So Dickey's 14th start of the season became the 37th one-hitter in the Mets' history, and the countdown was suspended. Another is tentatively scheduled for four days hence.

The Mets haven't seen the likes of this since Gooden pitched 49 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run 27 summers ago, and that is because the game never has seen anything comparable to this. Yes, we've had Orel Hershiser and Don Drysdale and all their zeros. But they were conventional pitchers who produced longer streaks with velocity and conventional pitches. Dickey does it with pitches that wrinkle, drop, break and strike his catcher in the side of the head. For now, he controls the game as no other knuckleballer has.

No less an expert than Phil Niekro knows that the challenge of commanding the wrinkle over a period of weeks is daunting if not overwhelming.

So, two days before Dickey threw his second straight one-hitter, Niekro said, "He's on a run like no other knuckleball pitcher's ever been on. Guys have had shutouts, Hoyt Wilhelm no-hit the Yankees. But this guy's gone out and struck out a lot of hitters and held teams scoreless and almost hitless for -- what? -- four straight games." The Mets' 5-0 victory Monday night made it five straight for Dickey without allowing an earned run.

And, to Niekro's utter amazement, "He ain't walkin' anybody."

Dickey has allowed seven walks in his last eight starts (60 2/3 innings), including two in nine against the O's.

"Knuckleball pitchers are supposed to give up walks -- four, five, seven a game. I threw a shutout once and walked 12," Niekro said.

Well, Niekro did allow five walks in a one-hit shutout, and three in his no-hitter. His career high in walks was nine, which he did twice. But his point was made.

"I might have had a-couple-three starts when I got results like R.A.'s getting, but there's usually an ugly one that comes around. It's like he's getting better with each game. It's amazing what he's doing."

So now a 13-strikeout, one-hit shutout must be added to the numbers that already had qualified as amazing.

"Not many conventional pitchers go on runs like his," Niekro said.

* * *

Pitchers talk while they shag fly balls during batting practice. The topic in the Citi Field outfield late Monday afternoon, according to Mets manager Terry Collins, was this: "What will the next big pitch be?"

"Ya know," Collins said, "we had a time when the slider was new, then the splitter. The curveball and changeup made comebacks. And lots of guys are working on cutters now. But the way R.A.'s going, why aren't some of these guys on the fence between Triple-A and big leagues ... why aren't they trying to learn it. Jeez. If you work at it like he does, you might get yourself a real shot up here."

For now, Dickey is the last of a trying breed. He took the challenge presented him in 2005 when he was with the Rangers and about to be demoted. Then-Rangers manager Buck Showalter, who watched Dickey dominate the O's from the opposing dugout on Monday night, and Hershiser, then the Rangers' pitching coach, encouraged him. Conversations with Charlie Hough introduced him to the fundamentals of the pitch. Talks with Tim Wakefield enhanced his grip and his performance. And Niekro shared the nuances that helped him earn election to the Hall of Fame. All along, Dickey has learned from trial and error, also known as innings pitched and base hits allowed.

"And now," Niekro said, "he's at a point where his confidence is sky high. He doesn't care who's in the box or who's on-deck. He knows he's gonna get outs. He doesn't even realize they're up there trying to hurt him, trying to beat him. I'm sure no knuckleballer's ever done what he's doing. Right now, he's the best at what he's doing, the hottest pitcher in the league. He's having the best run ever by a guy throwing what I used to throw.

"He's got control over the thing, he's throwing strikes, staying in the strike zone more than most knuckleballers. But the movement on his pitches is so late, he doesn't have to worry about getting too much of the plate."

The movement of Dickey's pitches, his changes of speed and placement, are breathtaking. Hitters return to their dugouts cursing, smiling, laughing and talking to themselves.

"The only guys who have a harder time of it than the guys trying to hit it are the guys trying to catch it," said Thole, Dickey's catcher on Monday night.

Nickeas says the same. So, too, does bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello, who caught one of Dickey's bullpen sessions a few weeks back.

"I never catch R.A. without gear," Racaniello said. "I had all of it on and he still got me. Late movement? He hit me in the side of the head."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.