NEW YORK -- Imagine a season without R.A. Dickey. Imagine a season in which the Mets could expect no reprieve from their struggles every five days, no constant, no rock. Dickey has become all of those things for the Mets, assuring that at least one game per week will have a favorable result.
Sometimes, too, Dickey has even been something more, as he was for the first eight innings of the Mets' 9-1 victory over the Pirates on Tuesday. Though Dickey lost his shutout bid in the ninth, he pitched brilliantly in winning his career-high 11th game at the age of 35.
He was, in short, what the Mets have come to expect him to be.
"He has proven that he can get in and out of trouble at any time," manager Jerry Manuel said, "and he has proven that he can win at this level."
Winning is something that Dickey has done with regularity since his callup in May, despite the fact that the Mets have provided him with scant support from time to time. So imagine his reaction on Tuesday, when the Mets staked him to nine runs over the first four innings, leaning on heavy contributions from Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan and Ruben Tejada.
Carlos Beltran and Nick Evans delivered the biggest blows, cracking solo home runs off Pirates starter Zach Duke in the fourth. Reyes provided the electricity, reaching base three times over the first four innings and scoring on each occasion. Pagan contributed to the attack, rapping three hits and driving in three runs. And Tejada, the 20-year-old second baseman who entered the game hitting .197, added a career-high three hits.
"A good day" was how Tejada described it.
A good day all around.
"You get some young guys and you get somewhat healthy, I feel like you can do some of the things that we did tonight," Manuel said.
For Dickey it was an embarrassment of riches. In addition to all that offense, the knuckleballer was the beneficiary of a 21-mph wind blowing directly in his face. Little could be better for Dickey's signature pitch, which danced and dove around home plate at speeds ranging from 57 mph to 81 mph.
"It was the first time all year that I've had a wind directly in my face," Dickey said. "Usually, it's going right to left, or left to right, or behind me a little bit. It had some severe movement."
"It's obviously different," Pirates manager John Russell said. "It's the first one we've seen. We're not used to it. The ball is moving. [Knuckleballers] are tough guys to hit off of when they're on."
And so Dickey baffled the Bucs, racking up all four of his strikeouts in succession in the fifth and sixth innings. By the ninth he was well over 100 pitches, but thriving.
Manuel asked him if he felt strong enough to pitch the ninth, because that's what managers do. And Dickey said that he felt plenty strong, because that's what horses do.
And Dickey has become a horse.
"I feel like over the course of this season, I've pitched in such a way as to earn that, which is nice," he said. "It feels good to do that. And the fact that he respects me enough to listen to me is a real blessing."
"He's earned every right to say how he feels," Manuel said.
Though the shutout didn't happen -- in the ninth, Dickey allowed a leadoff triple, a run-scoring groundout and two other hits before finally closing the door -- that situation did shed some light on how Dickey has grown this season. In the past he has at times lost his composure when faced with such sudden strikes of adversity. But not on Tuesday. In danger of losing his chance at a complete game, Dickey calmly induced a popup from Pedro Alvarez and a groundout from Brandon Moss to end it.
The question now is not how many games Dickey can win this September but how many he can win next season. A year after being one of the team's first cuts in Spring Training, he will arrive at camp next spring with a rotation spot in his grasp. Then he will begin his quest of proving that this year was no fluke.
Just as he did on Tuesday. Just as he has been did nearly every five days since May.
"To be perfectly honest, I haven't given the future too much thought," he said. "I'm still trying to stay in the moment with what we're doing here. My journey is such that I can't take anything for granted. That's my story."