R.A. Dickey first pitcher to nine wins as Mets avert sweep

WASHINGTON -- On a bright, sunny afternoon, R.A. Dickey had the Washington hitters swinging at shadows.

The knuckleballer baffled the Nationals, limiting them to four singles over 7 1/3 scoreless innings and leading the New York Mets to a 3-1 win Thursday.

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.

"Literally, when I go out there, the only streak I care about is getting that hitter out," he said. "It doesn't change the mentality because there's a run of scoreless innings."

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.

Nationals teen Bryce Harper fanned twice. He awkwardly chased strike three in the first inning, then casually flipped his bat.

No luck today, rookie.

"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," he 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 knuckleball guy like that," 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, later added an RBI single.

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 out an 11-pitch walk, it was a major accomplishment.

Mets manager Terry Collins said nice weather has been a factor in Dickey's good fortune, allowing him a better grip and therefore better command.

"When you get in that batter's box, you better be ready to hit something that's fluttering," he said.

Dickey credited a harder knuckleball -- thrown in the low 80s mph, up from the mid-70s -- with giving him a later, better break on the pitch.

"I feel comfortable with where I am with the pitch," he said. "And look: It's a knuckleball. It can be fickle."

Washington 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.

Frank Francisco gave up Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff home run in the ninth before closing for his 15th save in 18 chances.

The win stopped the Mets' three-game losing streak heading into the Subway Series that begins Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The Mets had lost the first two at Nationals Park in the series.

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.

Game notes
Dickey's previous best scoreless streak was 18 innings in 2010. ... 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." ... Mets LF Jason Bay was a late scratch because of flulike symptoms. He has been out since April 23 because of a broken rib, and was activated from the disabled list this week. ... Mets LHP Johan Santana will start Friday night at Yankee Stadium in his first outing since throwing a no-hitter. Collins said Santana, who threw a career-high 134 pitches in that gem last Friday, won't be on a pitch count. ... 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. ... Mets RHP Jon Rauch will be examined Friday. The reliever has a tender elbow and has lost five straight decisions. ... Mets SS Omar Quintanilla started despite an injured left index finger.