Rare are the days when Gio Gonzalez might be the second-most entertaining starting pitcher on the field, and Thursday could be one of them. The Nationals and Mets will play a 12:35 afternoon matinee, and Gonzalez will oppose Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. If either starter wins, he will become the first major leaguer to 13 wins.
The last time Dickey pitched against the Nationals, which, incidentally, also came on a midweek matinee at Nationals Park, he dominated. Dickey allowed no runs over 7 1/3 innings while striking out eight. Asked after Wednesday night’s 4-3 win over the Mets if he was looking forward to the challenge of hitting Dickey’s hard knuckler, Adam LaRoche said flatly, “No.”
Manager Davey Johnson could make one adjustment — putting Rick Ankiel in the lineup. Ankiel has 36 strikeouts in his last 78 at-bats, and he hasn’t started since July 1. But he could be perfect for Thursday. According to FanGraphs.com, Ankiel has been more valuable hitting knuckleballs over the past five seasons — 6.1 runs above average — than any player in the major leagues.
“You got to take it back to Wiffle ball in the backyard,” Ankiel said. “That’s what it is. For me, I feel you’ve got three swings at it. But you never know which one is going to be the one that’s not dancing all over the place. To me, I’m going to go up there and take a hack in those three swings.”
When Dickey pitched against the Nationals earlier this year, on June 7, Ankiel did not start. He entered the game as a defensive replacement and drew a walk in his lone plate appearance against Dickey.
“Dickey is different,” Ankiel said. Tim “Wakefield, I feel like you had to try to take it out of the catcher’s glove. You really wanted to see the ball deep. Dickey throws it so hard sometimes, that sometimes you get here” – Ankiel mimicked a swing with his hands – “and it’s by you.”
Gonzalez will try to build on an exquisite first start of his second half of the season, when he allowed two runs and struck out nine over six innings. He’ll throw his sharp curve and mid-90s fastballs, and Dickey will push his knuckleball over at 80-plus mph. It will be fun for everybody but the hitters.
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From the archives: R.A. Dickey, the Most Interesting Man in Baseball