Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey snapped out of his recent funk in what might have been the last home start of his career, and Arodys Vizcaino bounced back from one of the worst performances of his career in resounding fashion Thursday night.
Dickey limited the Nationals to two runs and four hits in eight innings and Vizcaino struck out the side in the ninth to finish a 3-2 Braves win in the finale of the penultimate home series of the season at SunTrust Park.
“It’s an absolute privilege to put on this uniform every time, and I will get emotional if I keep talking,” said Dickey, a Nashville native and father of four who’ll be 43 in October and hasn’t decided yet if he will pitch again in 2018. “But you never want to take a single day for granted. When you put on a uniform that you grew up loving and knowing intimately, it’s a special thing. I never wanted to take that for granted as long as I play the game.
“Tonight was a special night because I got to win a special game as an Atlanta Brave. It was cool.”
Ozzie Albies had three hits and drove in a run for the Braves, who snapped a four-game skid, avoided a series sweep and finished with a 9-10 record in the seaseon series against the Nationals after going 9-29 against them over the previous two seasons.
Dickey (10-10) took a two-hitter and a 3-1 lead to the eighth inning, when Anthony Rendon led off with a double to end a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired by the knuckleballer.
Two outs later, Matt Wieters lined a run-scoring single to left to cut the lead to a single run before Dickey got pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo on fly-out to left field to end the inning on the way to his 120th career win in his 399th game and 299th start.
“He pitched his rear off,”Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He was really good, efficient, it was working. Tyler (Flowers) did a great job with him. So it’s good to get him back out there catching him, too. But (Dickey) was really good. After the seventh inning I asked him how he felt. He said ‘I’m good, I’m not going to give you a reason to come get me.’ That was good enough for me.”
Vizcaino had three strikeouts in the ninth, one night after issuing three bases-loaded walks to the only batters he faced in a 7-3 loss that was his first blown save in 10 chances since taking over as closer at the beginning of August.
“I have to say, I’m really proud of Viz,” Dickey said. “It’s a real sign of a pro when you can go through a little bit of adversity and bounce back like he did. But that’s what you have to have on a team that’s going to be a championship team eventually. You’ve got to have guys who have hiccups and get right back on there and are able to do their job.”
It was the second time that Dickey lasted more than seven innings this season, the other on Aug. 30 when he limited the Phillies to one run on seven hits and a walk with a season-high nine strikeouts in eight innings. That was the only win for Dickey in his past six starts before Thursday, a rough ride in which he was 1-3 with a 6.55 ERA and allowing four or more earned runs in all but one outing and lasting five or fewer innings in each of his past three starts.
That slump came immediately after Dickey’s best stretch of pitching all season, 10 starts from June 19 through Aug. 13 in which he was 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA, .230 opponents’ average only four homers allowed in 63 2/3 innings including six or more innings in nine of 10 starts.
The Aug. 30 game at Philadelphia was the only time in the past month where Dickey had a good feel for his knuckleball until Thursday, when he had it dancing again. He said it helped to go into the game committed to throwing the knuckleball more, after getting away from it early in recent games and throwing more “conventional pitches” with less-than-stellar results.
“We talked about it,” said catcher Tyler Flowers, who had missed Dickey’s last start because of a bruised hand. “I didn’t catch him in the last one, but watching it, I kind of felt the same way – if you’re going to get burned I think you’ve got to get burned with your stuff. It seems like when he does that, the fastball is more effective and surprises guys a little more.
“Even a few (Nationals) were like, he brought the good one out today. I was like, yes he did, I hope it stays all night. And it did for the most part.
The Braves got a run in the first inning when Ender Inciarte led off with a triple off the Nationals’ Tanner Roark and Albies followed with an RBI single past first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Inciarte left Tuesday’s game after four innings and missed Wednesday’s game due to lingering thumb soreness, and Albies left Wednesday’s game in the eighth inning after being hit by a pitch in the left shin, the same spot where he was hit the previous week.
Neither showed any residual effects of those bruises and the Braves had a 1-0 lead. But it didn’t last long.
Zimmerman led off the Nationals’ second inning with a line-drive home run on a chest-high knuckleball, Zimmerman’s career-best 34th homer and the 19th homer allowed by Dickey in 18 starts at SunTrust Park. He had quickly given up the lead, but Dickey would give up almost nothing else the rest of the night.
After the Zimmerman homer, Dickey retired 17 of the next 18 batters including all 12 in the fourth through seventh innings. The only runner to reach base against him after the home run was Trea Turner on a two-out single in the third inning, and Dickey promptly picked him off at first base to end the inning.
The Braves, meanwhile, regained the lead in the fourth inning after a leadoff single from Albies, who advanced to third base on an errant snap-back pickoff throw from catcher Matt Wieters that got past Zimmerman. Freddie Freeman followed with a sacrifice fly for the lead, and Nick Markakis doubled and scored on Johan Camargo’s two-out single to push the margin to 3-1.
Roark got into a groove after consecutive two-out singles from Camargo and Lane Adams in the fourth inning, getting Dansby Swanson on a fly to center to begin a stretch in which the right-hander retired 10 of 11 batters, with only Dickey reaching on an error in the fifth inning during that period.