WASHINGTON (AP) - Bryce Harper lunged toward the plate, took an awkward swing at strike three and then casually flipped his bat.
No luck today, rookie.
On a bright, sunny afternoon, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey had the rest of the Washington hitters swinging at shadows, too. He limited the Nationals to four singles in 7 1-3 shutout innings and pitched the New York Mets to a 3-1 win Thursday.
``He throws it hard, throws it soft. Sometimes, it starts at your face and goes down through the strike zone. He's a pretty unbelievable pitcher. It was pretty fun to face him, but going 0 for 4 is not fun,' the teen star said.
``You're just trying to look for something up in the zone or just trying to swing as hard as you can or something. I don't even know. This is my first time really facing a knuckeball guy like that,' he said.
Harper said he faced a knuckleballer in Double-A last year and tried to bunt, without success. He had an even tougher time with Dickey, fanning with that off-balance swing in the first inning and later striking out on three flutterballs.
Ryan Zimmerman homered in the ninth off closer Frank Francisco. His first time up, Dickey got him to fish for a third strike.
``It's just so much different facing him, because he throws his knuckleball so hard, and it seems like he can cut it, he can sink it. I don't know if he is doing it on purpose, but it sure seems like he is,' Zimmerman said.
``He throws so many strikes with it, it's not like you're going to wait him out. And now you're down 0-1, 0-2, and he switches up to the slower knuckleball or the fast one,' he said.
Dickey (9-1) extended the longest shutout string of his career to 24 2-3 innings - a span that began against Pittsburgh and continued against San Diego, St. Louis and the Nats.
Dickey became the first pitcher in the majors to reach nine wins this season, backed by Lucas Duda's fifth homer in eight games. Dickey also exceeded his victory total from last year, when he often was the victim of poor run support.
``I'm getting more swings and misses. Other than that, I'm not doing anything differently,' Dickey said.
``I'm trying to induce them into hitting pieces of the ball, not getting solid contact,' he said.
Duda hit his 10th homer, a two-run shot in the fifth against Chien-Ming Wang (1-2). Daniel Murphy, who earlier bounced into an inning-ending double play that left him in a 0-for-19 rut, added an RBI single in the seventh.
The way Dickey has been pitching lately, those three runs were more than enough. He struck out eight and walked two, and most of the outs were soft ones. When Adam LaRoche worked an 11-pitch walk, it was a major accomplishment.
``I feel comfortable with where I am with the pitch,' Dickey said. ``And look: It's a knuckleball. It can be fickle.'
The first-place Nationals never got a runner past second base when Dickey was on the mound. He worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the seventh and left after Jhonatan Solano's one-out single in the eighth.
Reliever Bobby Parnell walked Rick Ankiel and after the runners moved up on a grounder, Harper grounded out to end the threat.
Francisco gave up Zimmerman's leadoff home run in the ninth before closing for his 15th save in 18 chances.
Wang allowed eight hits in 5 1-3 innings in his second start of the season. The Mets won for just the second time in 10 meetings with Washington since last September.
There wasn't a whole lot for Nationals fans to cheer about on a bright afternoon until Zimmerman's third homer. Midway through the game, however, there was a ripple of applause throughout the crowd of 32,096 when clouds briefly blocked the glare.
NOTES: Harper had the wind knocked out of him diving for David Wright's triple in the ninth. He is also nursing a tender back and has been getting treatment, manager Davey Johnson said. ``We'll have to monitor him pretty close,' Johnson said. Said Harper: ``I'm good. I'm totally fine to play. I won't be out of the lineup.' ... Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg is set to start Friday night at Fenway Park. Johnson said he doesn't expect to use an infield shift against Boston lefty slugger David Ortiz, not with the heat Strasburg brings.
The Associated Press News Service
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