Bonderman solid, but outdueled by Dickey
Offense unable to get it going against Mets knuckleballer
NEW YORK -- The Tigers can explain what makes a good knuckleball. Some of them can even explain the physics behind it, the difference a little momentum off one finger can make on the spin of a knuckleball that flattens out and gets pummeled. What the Tigers can't do, not with any certainty, is hit it.
When R.A. Dickey's knuckler is tumbling at two different speeds, as it was for the Mets on Wednesday night, what could they do?
"Nothing," Brandon Inge said after the 5-0 loss and a second straight defeat. "Just what we did. You take hard swings and you hope that it doesn't move at the very end."
No such luck. The way Jeremy Bonderman has pitched at times this season with no result, eight scoreless innings from Dickey against a team that's quite capable of pounding knuckleballs was about fitting.
The Tigers know how to hit the bad ones, and they have the track record for it. Not only is Detroit the only team since 1940 to hit six home runs off a pitcher, sharing the Major League record, it has done it twice, both off knuckleball pitchers.
One of them was Dickey, whose only start for Texas in 2006 saw him give up two shots to Chris Shelton and another to Inge. Another was Tim Wakefield, who gave up six homers on a hot August afternoon at Comerica Park in 2004 but still ended up with a win.
Wakefield has done well vs. Detroit, with six wins in seven starts since, allowing just seven homers total. Though Dickey had faced the Tigers a half-dozen times since that drubbing, he hadn't won any of them. This was his turn at revenge.
Instead of six homers, Dickey scattered four singles, one in each of the first four innings, two of them setting up legitimate scoring chances. Magglio Ordonez's ground ball through the middle played a part in loading the bases with two out in the opening inning. Johnny Damon's leadoff single and stolen base allowed Ramon Santiago's sacrifice bunt to set up a runner on third with one out for the heart of the Detroit order.
Both times, Dickey escaped with the knuckler. He used it to put Carlos Guillen in an 0-2 hole before grounding out to end the first. More impressive, he needed just two pitches in the third -- one a fastball to Ordonez, the other a knuckleball to Cabrera -- to get back-to-back groundouts and strand Damon.
"We actually had our chance right off the bat," manager Jim Leyland said. "We couldn't get the big hit, and they did. That was the difference in the game."
That was the last chance for the Tigers to make a difference. Once Inge singled in the fourth, Dickey (6-0) retired the final 13 batters he faced, many of them quickly. That was part of the Tigers' plan of attack, to be aggressive when they felt they had something to hit.
"I think you have to hit like every time you've got two strikes," Cabrera said. "You've got to keep [the swing] short. If you get beat, it's with a lot of ground balls, like we hit today. But myself, I didn't do a very good job, because I had two times with men in scoring position.
"I didn't do my job. I think that's a big part of the difference in the game. I think if we got a hit right there, or we score a run right there, I think we put pressure on that team. I think it's going to be a completely different game."
Realistically, though, there wasn't much they could do as long as Dickey was pitching like he did.
"I think early in the game, he was leaving the knuckleball up a bit more," Damon said. "As the game progressed, he was able to keep it down. And then you didn't know which way it was going to move, whether it was going to move in or move out. When he keeps it down, he's very successful. But obviously, he was very successful the whole day."
It wasn't just movement, Inge said, but movement late, when they couldn't react. That's the problem, he said, when a pitcher can throw the knuckleball without spin.
"There's a certain time period when you're swinging the bat that it's too late to make any sort of adjustment," Inge said. "Your swing is what it is at a certain point. If a ball moves in that last probably two to three feet, you're not hitting it, because you're already determined where you're going with your swing. That last two to three inches where it drops off, you're not going to make an adjustment on that."
If Tigers hitters couldn't adjust, obviously Bonderman couldn't do anything about it, either. All he could do is try to keep the game close, which he did. He worked through every Mets hitter except Jose Reyes. Unfortunately for Bonderman, Reyes fell a double shy of the cycle and scored three times.
"I threw the ball well," Bonderman said. "Really, I made one bad pitch to Reyes. That's the way it goes. Not a whole lot I can say, really. I kept the ball down, moved it around. It just didn't work out."
Despite all that Reyes damage, Bonderman worked through six innings in just 66 pitches, 49 of them for strikes. Yet with the Tigers struggling for runs, he was out following back-to-back singles leading off the seventh. Joel Zumaya entered to try to keep Dickey from bunting the runners over, but ended up walking him on four pitches to load the bases and set up three big insurance runs.
"They have real good pitching, Zumaya and Valverde and all those guys in the bullpen," Jeff Francoeur said. "But we found ways to score runs and hold them, so these first two games have been nice."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.