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R.A. Dickey hopes for return to his 2012 dominance versus Dodgers

The knuckleballer, 11-1 on the season, will start for the Mets on Friday night at Dodger Stadium. He struggled in his last start after throwing consecutive one-hitters.

June 28, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • R.A. Dickey throws against the Cincinnati Reds in May.
R.A. Dickey throws against the Cincinnati Reds in May. (David Pokress / MCT )

One way to sum up the intriguing R.A. Dickey is to use the description on his Twitter profile:

"Father, husband, Christian, pitcher, author, adventurer, Star Wars nerd, reader, ninja in training & cyclist."

There's much more that makes the New York Mets right-hander a unique personality, but it's the pitching — specifically Dickey's exceptional success throwing the knuckleball — that has captivated baseball.

At 37, Dickey seemingly came from nowhere to become one of the game's dominant starting pitchers so far this year. As of Thursday, he led the National League in wins with an 11-1 record, including consecutive one-hitters this month in which he struck out 12 and then 13.

Dickey has a 2.31 earned-run average and, until Sunday, had pitched 442/3 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. The streak ended Sunday when he was tagged for five runs by the New York Yankees.

Dickey will try to bounce back when he starts Friday against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.

"I feel like I'll be ready," Dickey said before the series opener Thursday. "I'll approach it no differently than I did in preparation for the Yankee game. I just try to be in the moment with every pitch."

Dickey is expected to be selected for the All-Star game, and there's speculation that retired manager Tony LaRussa, who's managing the NL team, might tap Dickey to start the game.

"I would have no problem starting him," said former Atlanta Braves pitching star John Smoltz, now a TBS baseball analyst. Dickey has "dominated a stretch of baseball we haven't seen in a long time."

It's also been a long and arduous trek for Dickey, whose initials stand for Robert Allen, to reach the big leagues.

As he was growing up in Nashville, his parents separated and his mother struggled with alcoholism (now recovering). He was sexually abused by a baby sitter and later by a teenage boy, abuse he kept to himself for more than 20 years.

He began his pro career as a promising conventional pitcher, a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1996. But during a physical exam the team and Dickey discovered he was missing a ligament in his throwing elbow, prompting Texas to slash his signing bonus from $810,000 to $75,000.

He spent nearly a decade as a journeyman pitcher, until 2005, when then-Texas manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser, the former Dodgers ace, persuaded him to throw the knuckleball full time.

Dickey had toyed with the dancing, capricious pitch, but consistently throwing a knuckler for strikes would require more years of practice.

"To be able to get [the pitch] game-ready and to hold runners, and to throw it up there in tight situations, that takes awhile," said Tom Candiotti, a former knuckleball pitcher for the Dodgers and other clubs who is now an Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster.

Dickey persevered and signed with the Mets in 2010, finishing that season with an 11-9 record and a 2.84 ERA. He struggled at times last year (8-13, 3.28 ERA) before it all came together this season.

Before this season started, Dickey climbed 19,341-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money for charity, and then his memoir was published.

"Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball," which Dickey — who studied English literature in college — co-wrote with sportswriter Wayne Coffey, drew raves as a frank and insightful look at his troubled life, the abuse he suffered and his journey to the big leagues.

With the retirement of Tim Wakefield last year, Dickey is the only major league starter throwing the knuckleball, and it's an unusual knuckler at that.

Although he constantly changes speeds to keep batters off balance, Dickey generally throws his knuckleball harder than most, about 69 to 81 mph.

"He's blessed with really good arm speed, which a lot of the other knuckleballers didn't have," Candiotti said. "This guy's throwing it 80 mph. That's ridiculous."

Asked how he approached an at-bat against Dickey, Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. said, "Like I'm playing Wiffle Ball, like a kid. I just try to see the ball as long as I can and square it up."

If Dickey remains successful, his career could have years left because the knuckleball doesn't punish arms like conventional pitches. Knuckleballer Phil Niekro, with 318 wins, retired at 48. Charlie Hough, another former Dodgers knuckleballer and one of Dickey's mentors, was 46 in his final season.

But Dickey said, "The only goal that I set at the start of the season was to throw my very first pitch as well as I can throw it."

"My next goal was to throw the second pitch as well as I can throw it," he said. The final result, Dickey added, "will be an overflow of the commitment to the moment."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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