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Dickey's been Niekro-esque with knuckler

The SportsXchange

NEW YORK -- With 318 victories and a plaque in Cooperstown, Phil Niekro is the patron saint of knuckleballers. But even he wants to seek advice from R.A. Dickey.

"Anytime we get a chance, we sit down and talk a little," Niekro said of Dickey. "Boy, I should be taking lessons from him right now."

Dickey, the unlikely co-ace of the New York Mets, continued his red-hot run Thursday when he threw 7 1/3 shutout innings -- extending his streak of consecutive scoreless innings to 24 2/3 -- and earned his ninth win in leading the Mets past the Washington Nationals, 3-1. He ranks among the NL's top 10 in most pitching categories, including wins (tied for first), strikeouts (sixth with 78), ERA (eighth at 2.44), WHIP (ninth at 1.04), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (10th at 4.11).

"He's almost unhittable right now," Niekro said Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, where he was appearing at an event on behalf of the Baseball Hall of Fame and HOF sponsor Ernst & Young. "He's full of confidence. You can see that in his demeanor out there on the mound. I'm looking forward to him having a great year and I'm excited about where it's going from here with him."

Dickey might be going where no knuckleballer has been in decades -- or ever. Not only is he on pace to become the first knuckleballer to win 20 games since Phil's late brother, Joe, went 20-12 for the Astros in 1980, but with the All-Star Game a little more than a month away, Dickey has a legitimate chance to become the first knuckleballer to start the Midsummer Classic.

Most impressive of all: If Dickey can maintain his current strikeout-to-walk ratio, he'd have a better single-season mark than anything ever fashioned by either of the Niekros, Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti or the recently retired Tim Wakefield.

The knuckleballing fraternity is a tight one -- Dickey, Niekro and Wakefield all appeared in a documentary, aptly titled "Knuckleball," that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April -- and Dickey knows those who have thrown the pitch at the highest level are watching every time he pitches.

"I get a text from Charlie just about after every outing, he and I are kind of close," Dickey said after he threw a shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals last Saturday at Citi Field. "He'll always give me a big 'yahoo' or 'way to go.' We'll text back and forth for a couple sentences. He knows what I'm trying to do, he's walked a mile in my shoes."

Dickey was carving out one of the most fascinating paths in the game long before he became one of its best pitchers. Dickey was selected in the first round of the 1996 draft by the Texas Rangers, who discovered in a physical that his right elbow didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament. After struggling as a conventional pitcher, Dickey learned the knuckleball from Hough in 2005 and tinkered with it as he played for four different organizations in as many seasons from 2006 through 2009.

Dickey signed with the Mets as a minor league free agent prior to the 2010 season and was recalled after posting a 2.23 ERA in eight starts at Class AAA Buffalo. Since then, he's gone 28-23 with a tidy 2.97 ERA in 464 innings of work, which allows him to view his current performance as a continuation rather than a breakout.

"I don't necessarily feel like I've taken one huge leap," Dickey said. "I just feel like this is kind of occurring because I've put in the work and I punch the clock just like anybody else."

Of course, as a knuckleballer, Dickey is anything but routine. Indeed, as the only current knuckleballer in the major leagues, he is single-handedly keeping the pitch from extinction. His first full major league season last year was the last season for Wakefield, who hung up the spikes at age 45.

Such a passing of the baton is nothing new: Wakefield emerged for good with the Red Sox in 1995, one year after Hough retired and just as Candiotti was nearing the end of his career. Phil and Joe Niekro retired in 1987 and 1988, respectively, when Hough and Candiotti were in the midst of their peak years.

Much like his knuckleballing predecessors, Dickey feels he's just rounding into peak form at an age when most players are crossing the finish line. Hough won 163 games after his 34th birthday and led the AL with 40 starts as a 39-year-old. Wakefield won 16 games at age 39, 17 games at age 41 and made his only All-Star team weeks before he turned 43. Candiotti posted sub-4.00 ERAs eight times in his 30s. Phil Niekro won 21 games at age 40 and Joe Niekro led the NL in starts during his age-38 and age-39 seasons.

"I kind of equate it to dog years: In knuckleball years, I'm probably 28 or 27," Dickey said. "I've got a lot to learn and my body still feels good. So as long as that's going on (and) I have the passion to play, then we'll see where it takes us."

It may take him someplace even Niekro doesn't recognize.

"Any knuckleball pitcher makes me feel good, because there's really not too many of them around," Niekro said. "And those who are doing it have made a commitment. And he has made it. He's probably as good a pitcher as there is right now. As long as he keeps his confidence up and doesn't lose that, he'll be fine. He's right where he should be. He's got a lot of years left in his career."
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