ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- His knuckleball danced throughout the strike zone. His mechanics were perfectly in line. His pitches left opponents confused and flailing with little chance of success.
On Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field, R.A. Dickey looked once again like the unhittable Cy Young winner of 2012.
The knuckleballer pitched the Toronto Blue Jays to a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, tossing a two-hit shutout, his first of the year, that he believes could be a big step toward recapturing his Cy Young form.
Dickey carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and allowed only one Rays hitter to reach second base.
"If they had been able to take up a tennis racquet," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said of his hitters, "they might have had better results."
Dickey (7-8, 4.72) has had an up-and-down season after winning the National League Cy Young Award for the New York Mets last season, entering Wednesday's start with a losing record and an ERA above 5.00. He was plagued by injuries in the early going and ended May with a 5.18 ERA.
He seemingly returned to form on June 5 against the San Francisco Giants, allowing two hits in 8 1/3 innings, then sandwiched another solid start between two ugly outings, another inconsistent stretch amid a frustratingly inconsistent year.
But he bounced back again Wednesday, shutting down the Rays with startling efficiency in a two-hour, 10-minute affair. He needed only 93 pitches to carve up the Rays and was backed by the middle of the Blue Jays' powerful lineup as Toronto avoided a sweep against the Rays.
"It was consistently in the strike zone," Dickey said of his knuckleball. "I told you it would take some time to kind of unlearn some bad habits that I had picked up trying to compensate for some earlier maladies. It's starting to take shape a little bit. ... Hopefully, this will be a springboard for the next 100 innings."
Tampa Bay's first base runner came with one out in the fifth when James Loney rolled a ground ball past shortstop Jose Reyes to break up Dickey's perfect game. But the Rays didn't manage much more, failing to get a runner to second base until Desmond Jennings' walk and a steal in the seventh.
Dickey was reluctant to say that he's back to his old ways, of course, pointing to the ups and downs every player goes through. And Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said it's unfair to expect another 2012 season from Dickey. But both pitcher and manager were encouraged by what they saw against the Rays.
"Tremendous," Gibbons said. "You could tell early on he had it going. That ball was dancing, big break. ... It's as good a game as you can pitch, I guess, unless it's perfect."
Tampa Bay also got a solid start from Roberto Hernandez, who is having an equally frustrating season. But he simply could not match Dickey. Hernandez (4-9, 4.98) allowed three runs, six hits and a walk while striking out five in eight innings.
"I thought Roberto was fantastic. That probably was his best game all year," Maddon said. "The ball was alive, the sinker was very good. The slider. Everything was good today with him, too. It's just unfortunate we got out-pitched today. ... But I thought Roberto pitched probably his best start as a Ray."
Hernandez gave up one run in the fourth inning when Jose Bautista shot a double into right field and scored on Melky Cabrera's two-out single to center. Adam Lind put Toronto up by two runs in the sixth, crushing a full-count pitch well over the center-field fence for his 11th home run of the season.
Herhandez went on to pitch into the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion immediately chased him by drilling a line drive deep into the left-field bleachers, his 22nd homer of the season, to put the Blue Jays ahead 3-0.
"He held us in check until we got that big home run late," Gibbons said. "That was a nice run to add on there from Encarnacion."
With the way Dickey pitched, it was all the Blue Jays needed.
"That's what I'm looking for," Dickey said.
NOTES: The Blue Jays officially activated Reyes from the 60-day disabled list before Wednesday's game. Reyes was in the starting lineup, batting leadoff, and went 0-for-4 with a few nice plays in the field. Reyes missed 66 games because of a sprained left ankle he suffered on April 12. With Reyes back in the fold, Gibbons opted to slot Melky Cabrera down in the fifth spot of the lineup. ... Despite Wednesday's loss, the Rays are still 18-0-1 in their last 19 home series against the Blue Jays, including one in Orlando, Fla. ... Rays RHP Brandon Gomes is set to make his second minor-league rehab appearance for Class A Charlotte on Thursday. He began his rehab assignment Monday and has been on the 15-day disabled list with a right lat strain since May 10, retroactive to May 8. ... Rays starting pitchers have worked at least six innings in seven of their last eight games after failing to do so in seven straight games before that. ... The Blue Jays will head to Boston on Thursday to face the Red Sox, sending RHP Chien-Ming Wang (1-0, 2.18 ERA) against LHP Jon Lester (7-4, 4.57). ... After a day off Thursday, the Rays will play host to the Detroit Tigers for three games starting Friday with RHP Alex Colome (1-0, 0.00) squaring off against Detroit RHP Max Scherzer (11-0, 3.05).