- David O'Brien The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
NEW YORK – There’s a chance that R.A. Dickey made the last start of his career Tuesday, and if so then he finished in impressive if not entirely satisfying fashion.
The 42-year-old Braves knuckleballer, who hasn’t decided whether he’ll continue pitching after this season, took a two-hit shutout to the seventh inning before allowing two runs and getting no decision in 4-3 loss against his former Mets team at Citi Field.
The Braves blew an early three-run lead and gave up four runs in the final three innings, losing on Travis Taijeron’s walk-off hit over Jace Peterson’s head with one out in the ninth.
It was a 3-0 lead before Dickey gave up a two-run homer to Kevin Plawecki in the seventh inning, and the Mets tied it in the eighth with an unearned run against reliever Sam Freeman after a two-base throwing error by third baseman Johan Camargo before an Asdrubal Cabrera sacrifice fly.
“That one to Plawecki kind of rolled up there and he barreled it,” said Dickey, who was enjoying one of his best games of the season with the knuckleball before the one he threw to Plaweicki.
“That’s the way that thing (knuckleball) is, it can be one pitch or whatever,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “But he threw really good. I just wish we could have got him the win.”
Dickey added, “That was really kind of the ballgame, for me, was giving up that two-run home run. If that doesn’t happen or if I get a call here or there, maybe I’m pitching in the ninth. Tonight I had really good stuff.”
Ender Inciarte, who earlier got his 200th hit of the season, made a spectacular diving catch in the left-center gap on Cabrera’s sacrifice fly off Freeman to prevent a would-be two-run hit on the play.
The Mets completed their comeback win in the ninth when Plawecki led off with a single against rookie left-hander A.J. Minter, who then walked Dominic Smith – the first walk issued by Minter in 14 major league appearances – before getting a strikeout and giving up a walk-off hit to Taijeron, who hit a long fly and was credited with a single because he was mobbed by teammates and never touched second base.
Dickey was charged with five hits, two runs and no walks with four strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, and tipped his cap when he received a warm ovation from many in the crowd of 21,938 as he left the field in the seventh inning at Citi Field.
He’s still appreciated by Mets fans after emerging as a frontline pitcher with their team from 2010 through 2012 including 20 wins and a Cy Young Award in his final season in New York before he was traded to Toronto.
“It’s great coming back here,” he said. “I have a lot of history here. This is a place where I really resurrected my career, so there’s some poetry to throwing well here, especially in one of the last outings of the year. It was nice to get to tip my hat to a bunch of fans who really supported me while I was here and beyond.”
The Braves have an $8 million option on his contract for 2018 and haven’t said whether they’ll pick it up. But it’s believed the decision rests more with Dickey and that he’d likely be brought back by the Braves if he decides to keep pitching instead of calling it a career and staying home in Nashville, where he lives with his wife and four kids.
Dickey could start the final game of the season Sunday at Miami or the Braves could have rookie Max Fried make that start. Dickey said he’d sit down with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez to discuss that situation Wednesday.
After six innings, the Braves had a 3-0 lead and the Mets had only one more hit than Dickey, who singled in the third inning. The Braves staked him to a lead before he threw a pitch, getting a run in the first when Inciarte led off the game with a double and scored on a two-out double by Nick Markakis.
“I had a good feel for (the knuckleball) and I was changing speeds better than I have in the past with it,” Dickey said. “The slower one tonight had a little bit more movement, so I went to that quite a bit more than I normally do.”
The Braves pushed the lead to 3-0 with two runs in the second inning on Peterson’s run-scoring double and Ozzie Albies’ two-out RBI single.
Dickey had a shutout going until the seventh, when Brandon Nimmo singled with one out and Plawecki followed with a long home run on a knuckleball that didn’t move. Two batters later, Dickey gave up a triple to Amed Rosario and was replaced by rookie reliever Dan Winkler, who struck out Taijeron to protect the lead.
Winkler pitched on consecutive days for the first time since returning from his second major elbow surgery.
It’s been an eventful, sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding season for Dickey, who grew up a Braves fan in Tennessee and had always hoped to pitch for them, finally getting a chance when he signed as a free agent in November.
When Dickey gave up eight runs including three homers in five innings of a 10-5 loss at Washington on June 13, then said afterward that he could tell he was close to turning a corner from mediocrity to good again, reporters could be excused for thinking he might be delusional.
But he proved he knew what he was talking about six days later when he fired seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball against the Giants. Beginning with that game, Dickey posted a 4-2 record and 2.12 ERA in 10 starts through Aug. 13, lasting at least six innings in nine of those 10 games and allowing one or no earned runs in seven of 10.
Then, just when it looked like it would be a no-brainer decision for Dickey to keep pitching beyond 2017 and for the Braves to pick up his option for 2018, he began a late-season slump in which he was 1-3 with a 6.55 ERA and .333 opponents’ average in six starts from Aug. 18 through Sept. 16.
But he ended that skid as Dickey tends to – emphatically. After giving up five or more runs in three consecutive starts, Dickey limited the Nationals to just four hits and two runs in a season-high eight innings for his 10th win of the season and the 120th win of his career.
He followed that up with an outing that was shaping up to be even better Tuesday until Plawecki disrupted things in the seventh inning. Still, Dickey has allowed just nine hits and four runs in 14 2/3 innings over his past two starts. And after issuing 12 walks in 34 1/3 innings during those previous six starts, he’s walked none in his past two outings.