ST. PETERSBURG -- As R.A. Dickey stood by his locker late Wednesday night, deconstructing his one-hitter against the Rays and the end of his franchise-record scoreless-innings streak, the knuckleballer was asked if his recent run of success felt at all strange.
"You mean like a superhero?" Dickey asked. He laughed. "No. I do not feel like a superhero."
He is merely pitching like one. Twelve days after Johan Santana fired the first no-hitter in franchise history, Dickey delivered an arguably more dominant performance, striking out a career-high 12 batters, walking none and allowing one unearned run in a 9-1 Mets victory at Tropicana Field.
Had third baseman David Wright come up with B.J. Upton's infield hit in the first inning, Dickey -- super or normal, hero or not -- might have come away with the Mets' second no-hitter in less than two weeks.
In other words, for those who still consider his career a fluke, Dickey denial is growing more and more difficult to maintain.
"I've never seen anything like this," manager Terry Collins said. "Never. I've seen some dominant pitching, but nothing like what he's going through right now."
"I don't think I would be credible if I sat here and said I don't think about being in the All-Star Game, or a chance at being the best pitcher in the big leagues," Dickey said. "It's a motivator. I do want to be the best."
Dickey's scoreless-innings streak finally ended with an unearned run in the ninth, when Wright committed a throwing error on Elliott Johnson's routine ground ball and catcher Mike Nickeas -- who later said that he is "running out of ways to try to explain how difficult it is" to catch Dickey's knuckler -- let two pitches dribble to the backstop for passed balls. With Johnson at third and the infield at normal depth in a nine-run game, Desmond Jennings finally shattered the shutout with an RBI groundout.
The Rays' only hit came eight innings earlier, when Wright was unable to make a barehanded play on Upton's soft bouncer toward the third-base bag. Collins said afterward that he planned to appeal the ruling of a hit, though the ball's position and Upton's speed all strongly corroborated the official scorer's verdict.
"I tried to make the play, and I didn't make it," Wright said. "It's as simple as that."
"Of course," added Rays manager Joe Maddon, "you think you're going to get more [hits] at that point."
Instead, Dickey set down the next 22 batters in a row on 10 strikeouts, eight ground balls and four flyouts, continuing to showcase exceptional command of his knuckleball. This season, Dickey has been able to place his knuckler to different parts of the strike zone, proceeding with what pitching coach Dan Warthen called "a general idea of where it's going to go." That is a rare thing for knuckleball pitchers, who typically thrive on the uncertainty of their pitch.
Then again, Dickey is in the midst of not only one of the most effective mound stretches in franchise history, but also one of the most dominant stretches of any knuckleballer who has pitched in the game. Walks tend to be occupational hazards for knuckleballers, who often succumb to their signature pitch's whims. But Dickey did not walk a batter Wednesday and has issued just five free passes over his last seven starts, a span of 51 2/3 innings.
Over his last five outings, Dickey has struck out 50 batters, walked three and allowed one earned run. His 2.51 ERA dating back to last May 15, a span of 37 starts, is lower than that of all but five pitchers in baseball. Dickey also pitched a one-hitter against the Phillies in 2010 and retired 27 consecutive Triple-A batters during a game earlier that summer, but Wednesday's outing may have been more dominant than both.
"He's at a different level right now," Wright said. "It's amazing what he's been able to do. It just seems like each outing, he's getting better and better."
Though the Mets struggled early against Rays starter David Price, who came into the game tied for the most wins in the American League, they found plenty of offense in the middle innings from unexpected sources. After Nickeas gave the Mets their first run with a one-out single in the fifth, Daniel Murphy drove in two with a ground-ball single through the right side of the infield.
The Mets knocked out Price an inning later, receiving run-scoring hits from Vinny Rottino and Ike Davis and a two-run single from Omar Quintanilla. Making a rare start at first base against a left-handed pitcher, Davis finished 2-for-3 with a walk.
It was far more offense than Dickey would need.
Roughly three hours prior to Wednesday's first pitch, Dickey and Warthen huddled around a laptop computer in the visiting clubhouse, breaking down the intricacies of Tampa Bay's offense. Scouting reports tend not to be overly useful for Dickey, who threw 106 pitches and more than 95 percent knuckleballs against the Rays. But he has now mastered his craft to the point that he can spend more time fine-tuning his approach.
Six hours later, Dickey walked off Tropicana Field's artificial turf and tipped his hat to a sizeable contingent of Mets fans stacked behind the visiting dugout. A live television interview followed, with Dickey's fan club cheering all the while.
And why not? Over the past month, no pitcher in baseball has been better.
"It's amazing," Collins said. "It's just truly amazing what he's done. To think two years ago, this guy was the first guy cut from this club, to where he's at today, I absolutely salute the guy."