There is a reason Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has nine wins already this season: His knuckleball is very good, and Dickey can throw more than one variation of it. His best is a hard knuckleball that caused the Nationals serious trouble in a 3-1 setback Thursday at Nationals Park.
In Dickey's first meeting with Bryce Harper, he threw the young phenom seven straight knuckleballs that varied in speed from 75 mph to 81 mph. He then struck out Harper on the eighth pitch, a 63 mph, drop-off-the-table curveball.
Just filthy stuff.
"He is very good," Harper said. "He throws it hard, he throws it soft. Sometimes it starts at your face and goes down into the strike zone. He is a pretty unbelievable pitcher. It was pretty fun to face him, but going 0-for-4 is not fun."
That was the first of eight strikeouts Dickey was able to register in the win.
For Harper, it was another of those new experiences in the majors. He had very little experience facing a pitcher that can throw a ball like that with so little rotation.
"I faced a kid in (Double-A) Akron last year that had a pretty filthy one," Harper said. "I tried to bunt for a base hit in that game. I didn't try to do that against (Dickey) today."
Harper attempted different strategies against Dickey in each at-bat, but to no avail. He struck out twice and had one soft dribbler up the first base line that was easily fielded by Mets first baseman Ike Davis for the out.
"You try to look for something up in the zone," Harper said. "Or you just try to swing as hard as you can. I don't really know. It is the first time for me to face a knuckleball guy like that. Hopefully, next time we can get him. He is 9-1 for a reason."
The Nationals would get a hit here or a walk there. They had chances in the fifth and seventh innings that were erased by weak grounders right at a fielder.
The theme that the Nationals continued to repeat when describing Dickey was how hard the Mets hurler could throw the knuckleball when he wanted to.
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said it is tough enough to make contact with a knuckleball, but now imagine one that comes to you at 81 mph.
"He has always been tough," Zimmerman said. "It is just so much different facing him because he throws the knuckleball so hard. He can cut it and sink it. I don't know if he is doing it on purpose, but it sure seems like he is. He throws so many strikes with it that you can't wait him out. Now you are down 0-1 or 0-2, and he can switch up to the slower knuckleball or the fast one. He is tough. He has been good all year. He is probably been their best pitcher."
Manager Davey Johnson said it is not like Dickey has one knuckleball, one fastball and one curve. Dickey features varying speeds with the knuckler, and that made contact very difficult for the Nationals' bats.
"I have seen knuckleballers that will throw a hard knuckleball, but his is about as hard as I have ever seen," Johnson said. "He has variations of it. It goes down to 67 mph when he wants to just float it up there. It is almost like a curveball. But the one he uses mostly, and the one he has the best command of, is the hard knuckleball. It just comes up there and wobbles. That is the one we had the most trouble with today."