In spring training of 2010, the Mets made their first cuts in mid-March. A 35-year-old pitcher who was trying to make the team as the last man out of the bullpen was one of those sent to minor league camp.
Give up? Retire? Are you kidding? The pitcher threw a knuckleball.
R.A. Dickey began that season at Triple-A Buffalo. He'd spent a lot of time in Triple-A, racking up 148 career starts and 42 relief appearances among Oklahoma City, Nashville, Tacoma and Rochester. That's a lot of Holiday Inns and a lot of minor league roommates.
It's two years later, and Dickey has perfected that knuckleball, like Mariano Rivera perfected the cutter or Pedro Martinez perfected the changeup or Greg Maddux perfected the outside corner. Dickey just threw his second straight one-hitter in the Mets' 5-0 win Monday over the Orioles, the first pitcher to do that since Toronto's Dave Stieb did so in his final two starts of the 1988 season.
(Stieb, for those who remember, lost both of those near no-hitters with two outs in the ninth inning. He also pitched a shutout in the start before those two games.)
But Dickey has gone to another level, becoming the first pitcher to allow no earned runs and strike out at least eight batters in five consecutive starts. He joined Stieb as one of 10 pitchers since 1900 to allow one hit or fewer in consecutive starts. Over his past six starts, Dickey is 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks and a .131 average allowed.
It is a beautiful thing, when a pitcher gets on a roll like this, when he shuts down the opposition inning after inning, batters helpless to do anything but take their awkward swings and slump back to the bench. Even in this season, in which it seems somebody flirts with a no-hit bid on a nightly basis, it's an amazing string of games. At some point, you'd think Dickey would hang a knuckler or a batter would accidentally run into one or a bleeder would be followed by a bloop.
That's not happening. Dickey himself is almost having trouble explaining his dominance. When asked about his favorite moment during this run, he laughed, saying, "Probably the base hit," referring to his leadoff single in the sixth inning Monday, starting a rally that led to Ike Davis' grand slam. "In reality, I have a good feel for [the knuckleball] right now, making it do a couple different things."
Watching him mow down the Orioles reminded me of something Roger Angell once wrote about Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series, when he pitched shutouts in Game 5 and, on two days' rest, Game 7:
"It is almost painful to watch, for Koufax, instead of merely overpowering hitters, as some fastball throwers do, appears to dismantle them, taking away first one and then another of their carefully developed offensive weapons and judgments, and leaving them only with the conviction that they are victims of a total mismatch."
That's what it was at Citi Field against the Orioles: a mismatch, the game's hottest pitcher facing the team that has struck out more than any other. Dickey, of course, has been commanding and locating the knuckleball with precision. He walked two against the Orioles and has just seven walks in his past eight starts. Seven walks by a knuckleballer? Phil Niekro walked at least seven batters in a game 12 times; Nolan Ryan, who didn't throw a knuckleball, walked that many in a game 71 times.
So we're left wondering: Where does Dickey's run of excellence rank? Orel Hershiser, of course, spun six consecutive shutouts in September 1988. Hershiser wasn't quite as dominant as Dickey, as he allowed a .160 average over those 55 innings but had just 30 strikeouts. In 1994, Greg Maddux posted a 1.56 ERA; he was mostly a model of consistency that season, allowing two earned runs or fewer in 21 of his 25 starts. From July 2 until the strike hit in August, he had an eight-start stretch in which he allowed seven earned runs (but 11 runs) and allowed a .182 average with 50 strikeouts and five walks. In 1995, when he posted a 1.63 ERA, he had a 58-inning stretch over eight starts, during which he allowed five runs.
Maybe the most dominant run I've ever was seen was Pedro Martinez at the end of the 1999 season. Over his final seven starts, he allowed seven runs (five earned) with eight walks and 96 strikeouts in 55 innings. In consecutive starts, he struck out 15, 11, 15, 17, 14, 12 and 12. Against Seattle on Sept. 4, he pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing two hits. In his next start, he was nearly perfect against the Yankees, allowing only a Chili Davis home run as he struck out 17. Every start at Fenway was a raucous party, fans standing and cheering with every two-strike count from the first inning onward.
In the postseason, he threw 17 more scoreless innings, allowing just five hits, a string that included his memorable six-inning hitless relief appearance in Game 5 of the American League Division Series against Cleveland. Add all that up -- including a one-inning relief appearance at the end of the season -- and Pedro allowed five earned runs over 73 innings (0.62 ERA) with 120 strikeouts.
There have been other memorable runs, of course. Fernando Valenzuela at the start of the 1981 season, when he threw five shutouts in seven starts and allowed two runs in 63 innings. Bob Gibson, in 1968, had an 11-start stretch in which he threw 11 complete games and allowed three runs. Hey, it was 1968 and all, but still, that's just sick.
We could go on. But this is what it feels like watching Dickey right now, that we're seeing the stuff of legends -- Maddux's control, Pedro's arsenal, Fernando's screwball, Gibson's fastball/slider combo ... R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. For the past six starts, it's been as dominant as any pitch, for a short period of time, as we've ever seen.
Maybe he'll lose the feel of it one of these starts. Maybe he'll crack a fingernail. All I know is this: I'll be watching his next start. It's the best story of the season.
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