It was perfect. Well, almost.
R.A. Dickey threw his first pitch at 6:05 pm. By 6:07p.m., his bid for a no-hitter was gone after a 2-0 knuckleball stayed up in the zone. Durham’s Fernando Perez stuck the bat out and the ball popped between first and second base. So then, R.A. Dickey went out and threw a perfect game.
28 up, 27 down isn’t exactly perfect, but it’s not bad for a 35-year-old knuckleballer that’s missing a ligament in his pitching arm. The 27 consecutive outs set the Bisons record, and it was the first one-hit shutout for the Herd since 1991.
“I felt like I could throw another nine (innings) right now and get the same result,” said R.A. Dickey after a 4-0 Bisons win that took just 1 hour, 45 minutes to complete. “That’s a good feeling.”
“That was the most dominating performance I’ve ever seen,” said Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell. “Not just from a knuckleballer. From almost any pitcher. He was in command from the first hitter.”
‘Command’ is something rarely mentioned around a knuckleballer, but you can’t argue against a 90-pitch outing with just 22 balls. Dickey struck out six batters and only saw a three-ball count once, his only base runner of the night coming from that first single.
“That was an 0-2,” Dickey said of the pitch count on the only hit he allowed. “So maybe if you give me an error on it, like a mental error of some kind, call it a no-hitter.”
Buffalo got an unearned run in the fourth on three ground balls and a throwing error from Durham shortstop Angel Chavez, and added a pair of insurance runs in the seventh on three hits. Ruben Tejada first AAA home run in the eighth capped off the scoring, but it was more than enough for the show-stealing Dickey.
The 35-year-old signed with the Bisons in January after pitching relief in the Minnesota Twins organization last season. He made the Twins’ opening day roster last spring, appearing in 35 games. He didn’t dazzle anyone last season, but Thursday night is bound to turn a few heads. The Durham Bulls looked lost at the plate, waiving at pitches that turned into easy put outs for the Herd fielders.
This was no team of slouches at the plate, either. Small sample sizes aside, the Durham Bulls led the International League in batting average (.299) coming into the game. They also led the league in home runs (28), walks (91) and runs per game (6.48). Durham is a team that has hit all season, but they couldn’t touch Dickey on Thursday night.
Then again, no one really has this year. In five starts the pitcher sports a 3-1 record and a 2.33 ERA. His first start of the year against Scranton Wilkes-Barre was a his worst: nine hits and six runs (four earned) over 4.2 innings on April 6. Since then he’s been on fire: pitching at least eight innings over his next four starts, including a nine-hit, two earned runs complete game victory at the Bisons home opener. He leads the IL in innings pitched (38.2), and he’s quickly becoming a big asset for the team.
“The good thing about having R.A. out there is that most of the time you know your bullpen is going to get a breather,” Oberkfell said. “He can throw a lot of pitches because the knuckleball doesn’t wear and tear on his arm.”
Dickey said he has only thrown the knuckleball for about four years, but a unique quirk has made him especially effective as a specialist:
Dickey has no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. That’s the one typically replaced in Tommy John surgery; it either was missing at birth or has disintegrated.
A 1996 U.S. Olympian, Dickey was a No. 1 pick of the Texas Rangers and was about to get an $810,000 bonus. But a team physician saw a picture of Dickey on the cover of Baseball America and thought his arm looked funny. After another exam revealed the oddity, the Rangers gave him only $75,000. But because of it, his arm has tremendous resiliency. No need to ice it after starts. No need to worry about elbow strain.
The oddity is something that cost him a lot of money when he first started, but as he’s learned to throw a knuckleball it has become into an asset. In a league full of pitch counts and 7-inning outings, Dickey has authored two of the three complete games in the International League this season, the other a no-hitter thrown by Norfolk’s Chris Tillman on Wednesday.
“I feel like I’m about 25 in knuckleball years,” Dickey said. “Maybe I have five or six more (years) if I can get up there with a big league team and stick there. But I really feel like I’m still passionate about it, still learning about it, and because of that it makes coming to the yard fun.”