WASHINGTON -- Typically, Minor League players are the ones who dig in against R.A. Dickey during live batting practice sessions in Florida each spring, facing him as he takes his knuckleball out of hibernation. But Major League players sometimes draw the assignment, too, as Lucas Duda did this February.
"That's harder to hit than a 100-mph fastball," Duda said of his experience facing Dickey's knucklers. "You can't judge which way it goes. It kind of has a life of itself."
And yet Dickey, at 37 years old, has been harnessing his signature pitch more effectively lately than at any previous point in his career. The knuckleballer fired 7 1/3 shutout innings Thursday in a 3-1 victory over the Nationals, running his career-best scoreless-innings streak to 24 2/3. He is the first Mets pitcher to submit three consecutive scoreless starts since Mike Pelfrey in 2010. He stands one out shy of Gio Gonzalez's league-best scoreless-innings streak from earlier this season. He is seven innings short of the franchise record that Jerry Koosman set 39 years ago.
He has become, in sum, a second ace for the Mets, who are already enjoying the fruits of Johan Santana's renaissance campaign.
"Man, he's unbelievable out there," second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "I've said this before, but I'm really glad he's on my side."
The manner in which Dickey extended his scoreless-innings streak Thursday was nearly as impressive as the length of the streak itself. Featuring three different types of knuckleballs -- a hard, low-80s pitch with limited break, a slower, mid-70s offering that flutters more frequently and a third version that appears to rise as it reaches home plate -- Dickey flummoxed the Nationals into the eighth.
He did not depart until giving up an infield single to Jhonatan Solano on his 105th pitch, with manager Terry Collins citing Dickey's propensity for allowing big hits late in games.
Or his former propensity, that is. Lately, Dickey has been nigh near unhittable at any point in games, posting a 0.29 ERA with 38 strikeouts and three walks over his last four starts. Over his last nine, he is 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA, 63 strikeouts and 12 free passes.
"I feel comfortable with where I am with the pitch," Dickey said, citing his improved ability to throw it at different elevations. "There have been times in my career with the knuckleball, especially since I've been with the Mets, where I felt like I've been in a pretty good groove with it. But I haven't been able to do some things that I've wanted to do. Now recently, I feel like I have had some more weapons at my disposal.
"But it's come with a lot of hard work."
Dickey was sharp from the start, retiring the first five batters he faced and 12 of the first 13. After Duda gave the Mets the only runs they would need with a two-run homer off Chien-Ming Wang, Dickey used double plays to pitch out of trouble in the fifth and seventh innings.
"He's got such a variety of knuckleballs," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "The one he uses mostly -- and I think he has the best command of -- is that hard knuckleball. It just kind of comes up there and wobbles. That's the one we had the most trouble with today."
Baseball is a team game, of course, and so the victory was not all Dickey's doing. Playing through a bruised left index finger, shortstop Omar Quintanilla twice preserved Dickey's scoreless-innings streak by making difficult plays look easy -- particularly in the eighth, when he ranged to his left and fired across his body to nail the speedy Bryce Harper at first. Murphy also contributed, snapping his 0-for-19 slump with two hits, including an RBI single in the seventh.
But with the Mets coming into the day on a three-game losing streak, it was Dickey who made by far the most noise.
With the victory, Dickey became the first Major League pitcher to reach nine wins, also passing his win total from all of last season. He entered the day as one of only seven pitchers in Major League history to win three consecutive starts while recording at least 30 strikeouts and walking two or fewer batters. Among the others were Santana, Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez, who did it twice.
Dickey's 2.61 ERA dating back to May 20, 2011, is also the sixth-lowest in baseball, trailing only those of Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Johnny Cueto -- all of them aces (or co-aces) of their respective teams.
Dickey may have already become such an ace in his own right, even if he will not be the one to use that title.
"I don't ever consider myself a stopper of any kind," he shrugged after the victory. "But I would consider myself a starter -- a starter of a new streak. Hopefully we can carry this momentum into New York [against the Yankees] and go from there."