PITTSBURGH (AP) — R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball is designed to baffle, not overwhelm.
Against the free-swinging Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, it did both.
His 80 mph knuckler dipping and darting all over the place, Dickey struck out a career-high 11 as the New York Mets hung on for a 3-2 victory. Dickey (6-1) tied a host of others for the most wins in the majors to continue the best start of his career.
“It was consistently good throughout the game, which was nice,” Dickey said. “A lot of times it will leave and come back, but tonight I felt like I had a really good one and I had a couple different kinds of knuckleballs tonight, which is really, really fun. ”
Dickey gave up one run on four hits and showed impeccable command of an unpredictable pitch.
“I was more impressed by the fact that in the seven innings he pitched, two balls hit the dirt,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “His numbers coming in were real. It was real last year. He competes and he made pitches.”
Ones the Pirates were only too happy to swing at. Josh Harrison had two hits Pittsburgh but the Pirates couldn’t take advantage of another strong start by James McDonald.
Mike Baxter, batting leadoff for the first time in his career, doubled to center off Juan Cruz (1-1) with one out in the eighth on a ball that nicked off Andrew McCutchen’s glove. Baxter scored two batters later when Lucas Duda’s liner glanced off the glove of first baseman Garrett Jones and rolled into right field.
New York added an insurance run on an error by Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez and the Mets hung on. It was a bit of payback for the Mets, who fell 5-4 on Monday night thanks in part to a ball caroming off centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ mitt in the eighth inning, leading to a three-base error the Pirates turned into a win.
“Andrew doesn’t miss many in center, and to go off his glove and have the one go off Jones’ glove, it was ours tonight,” New York manager Terry Collins said.
Dickey’s knuckler isn’t designed to rack up strikeouts, but then again the Pirates have a way of making opposing hurlers look dominant.
Pittsburgh began the night with the most strikeouts in baseball and had little trouble adding to the total. Though Hurdle warned his players to stay patient and only let it rip if the knuckleball stayed up, the Pirates continued to hack away.
“He was working both sides,” New York catcher Mike Nickeas said. “The one he was able to repeat tonight and get a lot of swings and misses on was that one that is kind of flat and kind of explodes up at the end. That’s tough to catch… If he can command that one, he’s going to get a lot of strikeouts.”
Dickey, enjoying a late-career revival at age 37, 10 straight at one point and the only batter he struggled to put away the 5-foot-9 Harrison, a utility player who keeps finding his way into the lineup with his spirited play.
McDonald has evolved into arguably the most consistent pitcher on one of baseball’s most surprising staffs. The 27-year-old who once had major issues throwing deep into games because of his command has worked into the seventh inning in five of his last six starts while becoming a legitimate strikeout pitcher.
Mixing his fastball and curveball effectively, McDonald allowed one run on four hits in seven innings, walking two and striking out eight. McDonald threw 71 of his 104 pitches for strikes while lowering his ERA to 2.51.
The Mets only broke through once, using two walks and an RBI-single by Nickeas to take a 1-0 lead in the second. Nickeas was nailed at second base trying to stretch his hit into a double, cutting short the rally. New York wouldn’t get a runner to third during McDonald’s last five innings.
Dickey matched McDonald whiff for whiff except when Harrison was in the box. The right-fielder doubled in the first and tripled in the sixth, coming home on McCutchen’s sacrifice fly to tie the game at 1.
Pittsburgh’s bullpen, a major reason the offensively challenged Pirates have remained competitive, faltered for once. Cruz entered the game with a 0.56 ERA, fourth-best among National League relievers.
Baxter, however drilled a shot to deep center that McCutchen couldn’t quite track down to start the eighth and the Mets were on their way to improving to 9-5 in one-run games.
The late-inning production helped Collins get off the hook after electing to lift Dickey after seven innings even though Dickey had thrown just 88 pitches.
“I said to him, `Look, I hate to take you out, but I’ve got to try to get someone one to try to win this game,”‘ Collins said. “He said, `hey, I understand.’
NOTES: New York 3B David Wright went 0 for 4 as his average dropped to .403, still tops in baseball … New York SS Ruben Tejada, on the disabled list since May 7 with a strained right calf, had four hits in an extended spring training game on Tuesday … Pittsburgh P Jeff Karstens will make a second rehab start on Saturday. The right-hander has been on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation since April … The series concludes on Wednesday when New York’s Jonathon Niese (2-2, 4.85 ERA) faces Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton (2-4, 4.35) at 12:35.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)