Dickey perfect in three innings, awful in two as Braves lose

Starting pitcher R.A. Dickey of the Braves reacts after giving up back-to-back home runs. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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Starting pitcher R.A. Dickey of the Braves reacts after giving up back-to-back home runs. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball comes and goes at this stage of the veteran’s career, and for two innings Tuesday night it was gone. Gone as in not behaving as he wanted it to and/or gone as in pitches deposited into the seats by Nationals hitters.

Ryan Zimmerman hit two home runs off Dickey and Daniel Murphy hit another off him, powering the Nationals to a 10-5 win against the Braves to even the series at a game apiece at Nationals Park.

Dansby Swanson had a two-run double in the fourth inning and Rio Ruiz hit a two-run homer in a three-run sixth as the Braves took a 5-3 lead, but Dickey failed to retire any of the five batters he faced in the bottom of the sixth, and all of them scored before the inning was through.

“The fifth inning guys were coming in saying that was a stupid (great) knuckleball he had going,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And then went out in the sixth and lost it. I mean, it’s just one of those feel things all the time. He’s not had it and then got it and ran with it, and then he had a really good one, worked out great (when the Braves took the lead) in the top of the sixth, then it just flattened out, didn’t have it.”

Dickey followed his best start of the season — three hits, one run in seven innings of a 3-1 win Thursday against the Phillies — by allowing eight hits and eight runs in five-plus innings Tuesday, the last runs charged to him coming after Luke Jackson came on in relief and gave up a two-run double to the first batter he faced, Matt Wieters.

The eight earned runs were the most he allowed since giving up eight against the Braves on April 18, 2012, when he also allowed eight hits including three homers in 4 1/3 innings. Nevertheless, Dickey said he was encouraged by his recent work.

“I had (a good knuckleball) pretty much all night long, believe it or not,” he said. “t’s just, you make a handful of mistakes to these guys and they’re homers, and you make good pitches and they duck-fart one into right and there’s a four-, five-chopper up the middle, and then the next thing you know you’re down in the hole.

“But, I mean, the last two outings I felt really good and my results tonight were very pedestrian. But I’m close. I’m close to turning the page here and not being mediocre.”

He’s 4-5 with a 5.35 ERA in 13 starts and has allowed 83 hits including 13 homers and 34 walks in 77 1/3 innings.

The five-run sixth inning gave the lead back to the Nationals, whose suspect bullpen protected it this time, unlike Monday when the Braves outscored the Nationals 5-1 in the final two innings of an 11-10 win in a dizzying series opener.

Swanson went 3-for-3 with an intentional walk in four plate appearances, his second three-hit game in seven days. Ruiz hit his second homer of the season, both coming against the Nationals and both to give the Braves a lead. He hit a two-run shot off ace Max Scherzer on May 20 in Atlanta.

Monday night, the Braves got 10 RBIs on five homers from veterans. Tuesday, they got four RBIs from rookies Swanson and Ruiz in the seventh and eighth spots in the order.

“What they did last night was impressive,” Swanson said. “But I think it just shows you that production can come from anywhere. It doesn’t just have to be the top or the bottom or the middle. I think that’s what makes us dangerous is the fact that we can hit one through eight. Hopefully it’ll start to come together even more and we can start being even better.”

Zimmerman and Murphy were a combined 6-for-8 with three homers and five RBIs for the Nationals, who’ve won 24 of their past 27 home games against the Braves.

The Nationals sent seven batters to the plate in the sixth inning before the Braves recorded an out.

Zimmerman and Murphy hit back-to-back homers in the first inning and Zimmerman added a two-run homer in the sixth off Dickey, moving “Zim” into a tie with Vladimir Guerrero for the Expos/Nationals franchise lead with 234.

Nationals starter Joe Ross gave up nine hits, five runs and three walks in 5 2/3 innings – the fifth time he allowed five or more earned runs in eight starts this season – but the Braves couldn’t add any runs against a Nationals bullpen that began the day with a National League-worst 5.06 ERA.

In Dickey’s outing Thursday against the Phillies, he had his best start of the season with Tyler Flowers catching him for the first time since spring training. With Flowers behind the plate again Tuesday, Dickey allowed a triple to the second batter he faced, Ryan Raburn, who scored on a Bryce Harper’s ground-out for a 1-0 lead.

Then things really got troublesome for Dickey, who gave up homers to Zimmerman and Murphy in a span of three pitches. That made it three runs allowed by Dickey before recording his third out.

At that point, as if flipping a switch, Dickey found his groove again and suddenly looked like he had five days before against the Phillies. The 42-year-old retired 13 of the next 14 batters including perfect innings in the third, fourth and fifth, with four strikeouts in those innings.

Then, that figurative switch got flipped again before the sixth inning. And the Nationals lit him up.