Commentary

Knuckleball doesn't break R.A.'s way

Dickey struggles with 'violent, weird, fickle pitch' as duel with Sabathia fizzles

Updated: June 25, 2012, 8:08 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- R.A. Dickey didn't crash and burn on his way back to earth. Not really. It was more like he fluttered up, down and all around, same as one of his knuckleball pitches.

The New York Mets right-hander had become the talk of baseball on the way to his showdown opposite CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees on Sunday night. He was a quirky guy taking the game's quirkiest pitch to places it hadn't been before. And the pitch was doing the same for him, making him a first-time sensation at the age of 37.

For nine straight decisions, including two one-hitters in his previous two starts, Dickey had been unbeatable and almost unhittable. Then he took the mound opposite Sabathia in the most-hyped Subway Series matchup in a long, long time, before an electric record crowd of 42,364 -- the largest ever at Citi Field -- and everything Dickey hadn't been doing during his historic hot streak seemed to become a box-score entry.

[+] EnlargeRA Dickey
Elsa/Getty Images"I just didn't have a great knuckleball," R.A. Dickey said after Sunday's game.

And everything the Yanks usually do to the Mets -- like yank them back to earth just when they have a nice little "You Gotta Believe" story cooking again, just to remind them who's still king of the city -- all snapped back into place.

"Business as usual," Yanks manager Joe Girardi said before the game.

Girardi was talking about his decision not to tinker with batting practice to give the Yanks some extra preparation to facing Dickey. But he might as well have been talking about how the Yanks saw the comparatively no-name Mets gamely fight and claw and scratch back from a four-run deficit -- only to see the Yanks slap them down again thanks to a towering home run to dead center field by Robinson Cano in the eighth, giving the Yanks a 6-5 win on a night both pitching aces canceled out.

"It didn't turn out as billed," Dickey admitted about the matchup. "As controllable as the knuckleball has been for me, it's still a very violent, weird, fickle pitch from time to time. And she did not cooperate tonight on a couple of different occasions."

Dickey (11-1) didn't take the loss because the Mets got him off the hook with a three-run rally in the sixth, the same inning they chased Sabathia with a rally that was aided by a Cano error on a grounder by Justin Turner.

But it was pretty clear early on that this wasn't going to be another magical night for Dickey. It was as if every little badge of honor he'd collected during the streak he has been on fell off one by one.

Dickey hadn't allowed an earned run in 32 calendar days -- a remarkable span of 44 2/3 innings -- before the Yanks touched him for four runs in the third inning, three of them on a home run by Nick Swisher. And by then the Yanks already had as many hits (two) as Dickey had allowed in his previous two games combined.

Even more fatally for Dickey, the remarkable control he'd had with his knuckler so far this year -- the trait that Girardi, a former catcher, had called "the most amazing thing to me" -- deserted him too. Dickey had averaged a tick more than 10 strikeouts in his past six starts. On Sunday, he had only three.

Before the night was done, he'd also coughed up three walks. And a hit batsman. And a wild pitch -- astonishingly enough just his first of the season.

In the first inning, Dickey decked the Yanks' Alex Rodriguez with a 78-mph knuckleballer that just kept riding in, in, in toward A-Rod's left ear, and Rodriguez was so surprised he had to hit the dirt. He just sat there for a couple seconds afterward, blinking and laughing a little.

But Dickey wasn't. He admitted his lack of control over the knuckler left him in a tough spot tactically. He said he knew the Yanks' first six hitters all have double-digit home run totals this season, and they could change a game "with just one swing." But he also felt, "Against a lineup like that, you can't give in. I mean, there were plenty of opportunities for me to go ahead and throw a 2-0 fastball. But I didn't know if I'd get it back. These guys are very, very good. Maybe the best lineup we've seen so far. And if you're going to get beat, you're going to get beat with your bread and butter."

He sighed, then added: "I mean, I gave up five hits. I didn't feel I got beat around the ballpark. … I just didn't have a great knuckleball."

Someone asked Dickey if it was just inevitable that it would happen sometime, and Dickey calmly rejected the suggestion.

"I think that's probably the pulse that beats outside of here, [but] I felt like I could keep going. Why not?" he said.

He might as well believe it could keep rolling. Because none of it was supposed to happen in the first place. A 37-year-old journeyman rewriting Mets history and some major league history, like Doc Gooden did once upon a time? A night that Dickey began on such a torrid streak that Sabathia -- a former Cy Young Award winner, remember -- was being referred to as the "other guy"?

"That's one thing we never shy away from, any tough pitcher," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "We feel like we can beat anyone. We never go into a game thinking, 'Oh, well, we'll probably lose this one because this guy is hot.' We truly believe it. It makes it a challenge.

"When people say, 'You can't beat him,' we say, 'OK, we'll prove you wrong.' It's kinda fun."

Dickey -- who calls his knuckleball a "she" in that Tennessee twang of his -- sounded a little wistful now that their hot streak was over, if only for a night. "I didn't have a great knuckleball. … But I was going to live and die with my girl. She's been nice so far. That's just the way of it. It happens," Dickey shrugged.

So now what?

"I'll try to start a new streak," Dickey answered. "I'd love to see [the Yankees] again. And we might get that chance."

It would have to happen in the playoffs -- another place he has never been.

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