Dickey’s knuckleball presenting challenges tonight (Nats win 3-2)

ATLANTA - The Nationals haven’t seen too many knuckleballs the last few years, but they’re seeing one tonight, and they’d better be ready to see a lot more of it as this season plays out.

R.A. Dickey is on the mound for the Braves tonight at SunTrust Park for the first of what should be several starts against the Nationals in 2017. The 42-year-old right-hander used to be a regular conundrum for veteran Nats hitters when he pitched for the Mets, but he spent the last four years in Toronto, so this current lineup isn’t all that familiar with him.

Dusty Baker’s philosophy in preparing his guys to face a knuckleballer?

“You say, in theory: You’ve got to kind of swat at it, you can’t swing at it,” the Nationals manager said. “Which is why I threw some guys in there tonight that have more of a swat stroke than a swing stroke. You get a ball that’s up, crowd the strike zone, ‘cause that’s the last thing a knuckleballer wants to do, is hit you.

“There’s a lot of theories. Joe Morgan’s theory was: He didn’t play, cause he didn’t want to mess up his stroke.”

Several Nationals regulars (Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner) are out of the lineup tonight, but that’s because of injury, not a strategic decision to sit them against Dickey.

Early on, some batters appear to be having trouble figuring out the veteran, including Bryce Harper (who is 0-for-2 with a groundout and a popup to the catcher). Ryan Zimmerman did lash a double to right-center to open the top of the second, eventually scoring on Michael A. Taylor’s sacrifice fly to the warning track in left-center.

Stephen Strasburg gray front close.jpgThe Braves have had more luck against Stephen Strasburg, even though the Nats right-hander has seven strikeouts through four innings. They took advantage of two singles and a walk to load the bases in the bottom of the second, then pushed across one run on Dickey’s RBI grounder. They added another run in the fourth, thanks in part to second baseman Grant Green’s inability to make a play on a grounder to his left. That ultimately allowed Brandon Phillips to score on Kurt Suzuki’s sac fly to center, giving Atlanta a 2-1 lead.

Update: The Nationals weren’t able to elevate many of Dickey’s knuckleballs for 5 2/3 innings tonight, pounding 11 balls into the ground for outs. But Zimmerman just saved the day. With two outs and Harper on first base after drawing a walk, Zimmerman crushed a 1-0 knuckler from Dickey to center field for his fifth homer of the season, his second in as many days. Just like that, the Nats lead 3-2 behind the blazing-hot bat of Zimmerman.

Update II: Nats win, 3-2. They managed to make that slim, one-run lead hold up. Strasburg went seven strong. Oliver Perez and Koda Glover combined to pitch a 1-2-3 eighth. Shawn Kelley then pitched the ninth to notch his second save and secure the Nationals’ three-game sweep of the Braves.

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