During an eight-week stretch into mid-August, the Braves’ pending decision on whether to pick up an $8 million option on R.A. Dickey’s contract for 2018 was starting to look like an easy “yes.”
But since then, the 42-year-old knuckleballer has perhaps given reason to pause and think it through, as he’s looked at times like a pitcher who’ll turn 43 at the end of October, just before the Braves have to make up their minds.
Dickey allowed eight hits, five runs and two walks with no strikeouts in five innings of a 7-3 loss to the Mets on Saturday night at SunTrust Park.
“You play long enough, you’re going to have some streaks like this,” said Dickey (9-10), who has one win and a 6.55 ERA in his past six starts. “These last few games have been very inconsistent for me as far as my knuckleball goes. I had a great one in Philly (Aug. 30) and then the next three starts it kind of floated away from me some.
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“And then tonight was the night when I had a horrible knuckleball and tried to survive some innings with some conventional pitching.”
Until Lane Adams’ two-run, two-out pinch-hit single in the ninth inning, Freddie Freeman’s 27th homer was about the only highlight for the Braves, and it came with two out in the sixth inning when they trailed 5-0.
It was on the third loss for the Braves in their past 10 games, but against the Mets they’ve dropped 17 of their past 23 games played in Atlanta.
The Mets snapped a five-game losing skid and flamethrower Jacob deGrom collected his career-high 15th win – though just the second in his past seven starts – while limiting the Braves to five hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in seven innings.
“That was the deGrom of a couple of years ago right there,” Freeman said. “I think before when we faced him (this season) he was 93, 94, 95 (mph fastballs) with 87-88 sliders. That was the old one right there. That was tough to hit. He had the back-door slider working, he was throwing 97, 98, 99. That was tough to hit and he was on tonight.”
Freeman missed seven weeks with a fractured left wrist before the All-Star break, but still has 27 homers in 103 games and a .612 slugging percentage that would rank ninth in franchise history in the modern baseball era since 1900.
“Obviously encouraged,” he said of his recent surge, which has put 30 homers within reach even though he missed about one-fourth of the season. “I’m just trying to make it through. I feel pretty decent right now, but I think we’ve got 15 games left, so I’ll just keep grinding it out all the way till the end.”
He’s hit .364 (20-f0r-55) with four homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.134 OPS in his past 14 games.
“I stopped taking batting practice about 2 ½ weeks ago and that’s helped a lot, in order for me to save my bullets,” said Freeman, who had been frustrated by the diminished strength in his wrist before the recent surge. “And I haven’t been going into the game tired, so I think taking off BP has helped a lot.”
For Dickey, it was only the second time in his past 84 strikeouts that he failed to record a strikeout, and the first time this season. Half of the Mets’ hits were doubles including three consecutive doubles to start the third inning.
“It was kind of a comedy of errors on my part when I went to my conventional stuff,” said Dickey, who knew early that his knuckleball wasn’t reacting well and threw only one in the first inning, something he could rarely remember doing in his career.
Dickey was 4-0 with a 2.13 ERA in four career starts against the Mets before Saturday, when he gave up one fewer run in five innings than he allowed in 25 1/3 innings over his previous starts against the team he won a Cy Young Award with in 2012. He won two starts against them this season in April and May.
Dickey is 1-3 with a 6.55 ERA and .333 opponents’ average in his past six starts, after going 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA and .230 OA over his previous 10. In his past six starts he’s allowed eight or more hits four times and given up four or more runs five times.
“You get angry about it and somewhat embarrassed because you feel like you’re capable of so much more,” Dickey said. “But you have to quickly turn that into resolve and determination to find out how you can get back to where you were.”
In each of his past three games, Dickey has given up at least five earned runs and lasted five or fewer innings. He left that early in only three of his first 26 starts.
DeGrom (15-9) moved to 12th place on the Mets single-season strikeout list with 228, just behind Dickey, who had 230 strikeouts and 20 wins in his 2012 Cy Young Award season. Dickey was the last Mets pitcher to win at least 15 games in a season until DeGrom won his 15th Saturday.
DeGrom was 1-4 with a 5.35 ERA in his previous six starts, and the Mets had scored two or fewer runs while he was in four of those games and three runs while he was in another. But against the Braves and Dickey, the Mets scored two runs on four hits in the second inning and added two more runs in the third when they started the inning with three consecutive doubles by Norichika Aoki, Brandon Nimmo and Astrubal Cabrera.
“When they scored the second run I thought maybe we were in trouble,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said, referring to falling behind on a night when deGrom was so dominant. “He made some really good pitches to everybody. It was maybe a change-up that Freddie hit out. We went (runners on) first and third in the first, had a chance to get on the board there quick. But he was really, really good.”
The Braves had runners on the corners with one out in the first after an Ozzie Albies walk and Freeman single, but deGrom struck out Nick Markakis looking and got Kurt Suzuki to pop out to end the inning.
After Juan Lagares drew a leadoff walk in the Mets’ fourth inning, Gavin Cecchini doubled him in to push the lead to 5-0. It was Cecchini’s second RBI of the night and the second of his career-high three hits.