WASHINGTON -- A shopping bag full of baseballs sat inside the locker of Dillon Gee, gifts for some of the dozen or so relatives that attended his first big league start Tuesday evening at Nationals Park.
Perhaps the most optimistic of the gang might have expected something like this. Gee most certainly did not.
Making his Major League debut in place of the injured Johan Santana, Gee took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before settling for his first career victory in a 4-1 win over the Nationals.
"That went better than expected," Gee said, laughing. "I kind of blacked out, I think. I don't even know what happened out there."
What happened was Gee more than handled a Nationals team that exploded for 13 runs a night earlier, transforming a spot start into an audition for future work. Gee, who did not allow a hit until Willie Harris led off the sixth inning with a solo homer, allowed merely one run in total on two hits, striking out four and walking three. And he could have lasted longer than his seven innings, had Mets manager Jerry Manuel not wanted to ensure that Gee left his debut feeling invincible.
"I thought it was more important to get him out on a high note," Manuel said. "I thought it was the right thing to do for him."
By that time, although the Mets were holding just a three-run lead, the game seemed securely in hand. Washington had done little to capitalize on Gee's few mistakes, hardly touching what Gee referred to as a subpar curveball -- and struggling at the plate even after Harris touched him for a homer.
Ike Davis, meanwhile, had given the Mets all they needed on offense, smashing a three-run homer into the second deck in right-center field. After finishing August without a homer, Davis now has three home runs and a .455 batting average in September.
"I think I'm just having more relaxed at-bats," Davis said. "I get in the habit of trying to create too much, and I get out in front and start leaning and trying to hit the ball too hard."
Tuesday, Davis did not try to hit the ball too hard. He simply crushed it.
And Gee, who singled home the fourth Mets run with his first career hit, was the beneficiary.
A 21st-round Draft pick back in 2007, Gee does not possess the upside of some of the more heralded prospects in New York -- Jenrry Mejia, anyone? -- or throughout baseball. But the 24-year-old righty does have what Manuel likes to call "pitchability," the innate knowledge of how to attack opposing hitters, how to expose weaknesses, how to maximize his own ability.
"The one thing I noticed was that he was pretty aggressive in the strike zone early," Harris said. "He was going fastball early, and then he was going to his breaking pitch. Once he started guys off with breaking pitches and got behind in the count, he would come after them with fastballs."
Such is the aggressiveness that allowed Gee to set a franchise record with 165 strikeouts at Buffalo this summer, despite a conspicuous lack of swing-and-miss stuff. His strategies manifested themselves again in the fourth inning Tuesday, when Gee fanned the heart of Washington's order on 12 pitches. After Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman went down swinging on sliders, Adam Dunn waved and missed at a 92-mph fastball -- one of Gee's hardest throws of the evening.
But in shoving aside his limitations, Gee -- to some degree -- also acknowledged them. He is not a top prospect and, despite Manuel's infatuation with him, he won't likely have an inside track for a rotation spot next spring. Nor will Gee's fastball approach triple digits in the interim. All he can do, then, is continue to pitch well and hope that the Mets continue to give him a chance.
"He's a pitcher," Manuel said. "And anytime you catch a pitcher on his game, he can do those types of things for you."
At the least, Gee should see some more mound time this September. Preaching caution with Santana, the Mets will not even reevaluate their prized lefty until they arrive back in New York City later this week. If Santana is feeling any discomfort whatsoever in his strained left pectoral, the Mets may opt to have him skip another start. Or two. Or three.
As long as the Mets feel that he has not thrown too many innings in his first season back from a major shoulder issue, Gee may indeed receive more time down the stretch.
"I still feel pretty strong," Gee said. "I might get tired here or there, but overall I feel pretty good."
As he should -- the evidence, after all, was in his locker. After Tuesday's game, Gee had a large collection of baseballs to gift wrap -- souvenirs for his mother and father, among others. Sitting on a shelf outside the shopping bag were also two balls for Gee, mementos of his first big league pitch and his first big league hit.
As if he could forget.