R.A. Dickey has rescued the Mets all season. Thursday night, they rescued him.
While the expected pitching duel between Dickey and Phillies ace Cole Hamels never materialized at Citi Field, we instead got what baseball so often gives us: The unexpected. The Mets delivered a thrilling, bottom-of-the-ninth rally off All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon, a rally sparked by a guy hitting under .200, kept alive by a guy hitting .222 and eventually finished off when David Wright blooped a ball to right field for the game-winning hit.
Phillies fans can cry bad luck. But this 6-5 victory for the Mets was all about terrific at-bats with the game on the line, hitters fighting off pitches and creating their own good luck.
In the process, Dickey avoided his first loss since April 18. He entered the game with a 0.86 ERA over his previous eight starts, having allowed just seven runs (five of those in one game) and striking out 76 batters over 62.2 innings. The Phillies tagged him for 11 hits and five runs, but Dickey persevered through seven innings, leaving with a 5-4 deficit.
The Phillies turned to Papelbon to close it out. Ike Davis, hitting .198 as he stepped in, lined an 0-1 fastball just over the head of a leaping Jimmy Rollins for a leadoff double. It was a good pitch by Papelbon, but it was a better piece of hitting by Davis, going with the pitch instead of trying to yank it to right field.
After Josh Thole sacrificed pinch-runner Ronny Cedeno to third, Papelbon blew away Kirk Nieuwenhuis on four pitches, as Nieuwenhuis swung through three high fastballs. That brought up rookie pinch-hitter Jordany Valdespin, hitting .222 with two home runs in 63 at-bats -- a guy with one walk and 13 strikeouts. He's the kind of hitter Papelbon should put away with ease. But Phillies and Mets fans certainly remembered May 7, when Valdespin pinch hit against Papelbon in a 2-2 game and hit a three-run home run.
Maybe that home run was on Papelbon's mind, as well. He worked too carefully, fell behind 3-1, saw Valdespin foul off an inside pitch and then hit him with a 3-2 fastball. Ruben Tejada then showed off his keen eye at the plate, worked the count to 3-2, fouled off two pitches and then took ball four on a close pitch just off the outside corner. With the bases now loaded, it was up to Daniel Murphy. The 28,000 fans at Citi Field were on their feet on a hot, muggy night, sweating out this unlikely rally in this unlikeliest of first halves for the Mets.
Murphy grounded a 1-2 pitch up the middle that bounded off Papelbon's shoe. An infield hit. Game tied. It was Papelbon's 27th pitch of the inning and it was a bad one, a hanging splitter. The Mets were lucky the game didn't end there.
That brought up Wright, who had homered earlier in the game. On Papelbon's 28th pitch, Wright fought off an insider heater and blooped a single just out of the reach of a diving Hunter Pence. Mets win.
I saw several tweets from Phillies fans complaining about bad luck in the inning: Papelbon could have just as easily made a play on Murphy's hit, or Wright's blooper could have been caught. I say nonsense. Papelbon had a terrible at-bat against the weak-hitting Valdespin; he made a terrible pitch to Murphy; and Pence, a right fielder with poor defensive this season, lumbered after a ball that many right fielders would have caught.
On this night, the Mets made the plays and the Phillies did not. There was no bad luck.
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As for Dickey, he's still in line to possibly start the All-Star Game with his 12-1 record and 2.40 ERA, although I suspect if he does pitch in the game, it will be in relief and once Yadier Molina enters behind the plate in place of starting catcher Buster Posey.
With the Mets rallying in the bottom of the inning, the TV cameras flashed to Dickey still sitting in the dugout. Many starting pitchers literally hit the shower when they get knocked out early, but there was Dickey, rally cap in hand. He had that eager look of a child who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, hoping he'd get away with this one after letting his teammates down.
Of course, he's the guy who has done anything but this season. It's at the point when a mediocre Dickey start is now a surprise. We're at the point where we expect dominant outings from him every time out. He's not only a Cy Young candidate, but an MVP candidate (hey, if Justin Verlander won last year, we can consider starting pitchers for the MVP award).
In watching Dickey's run over the past several weeks, one thing I've noticed is how much he seems to be enjoying it. Not that he doesn't expect to be good -- all major leaguers expect to be good on a certain level -- but that he understands how unique it is to get on a stretch like this, let alone for a 37-year-old knuckleballer without a long track record of success. I asked him about this recently, as he sat on his clubhouse stool after shagging balls during a 95-degree day in New York, his face a bright red from the hot sun.
"Well, let me put it this way and you tell me if you agree," he said with a smile. "I'm both appreciative and confident right now. I've had a lot of people help me and support me to get here, so that means a lot."
Dickey's knuckleball, as everyone seems to know by now, is a hard knuckleball, one that comes in at speeds up to 80 and 81 mph, much faster than the conventional high-60s knuckleball from a pitcher like Tim Wakefield. But Dickey varies the speed on the pitch and, more impressively, the location. A knuckleballer with command? Unthinkable.
There is a method to how he achieves all this. "There is a technique, but I can't really explain it," he said. "It's not that you wouldn't understand it. But if the right hitter knew what to look for, he may be able to pick up something."
That means the Mets' catcher just puts down the sign for the knuckler, and awaits the pitch. He's as blind as the batter. Unless, of course, Dickey mixes in one of his other pitches. He doesn't throw the knuckleball on every pitch, which makes him doubly tough for hitters. Matt Holliday of the Cardinals recently explained this, how the knuckleball makes Dickey's 87 mph fastball appear much faster. "I do watch video," Dickey said about his daily preparation. "I have to know the hitters' weaknesses, when they swing and miss, especially since I do have a conventional repertoire." If he loses the feel of the knuckleball, or if it's a wet night on which he has trouble gripping the ball, he can always resort to his other pitches.
He hasn't had to do that much. He remains the most unconventional of pitchers, the ace of the Mets in this most unconventional of seasons for them. They're 45-38, currently tied with the Reds and Giants for the wild-card lead. There has been talk that if the Mets stay in the race, Dickey could pitch on three days' rest or maybe pitch in relief between starts. Manager Terry Collins admitted a couple of weeks ago that the Mets had considered that.
Dickey said he'd be willing to do it if asked. "It would mean I'd have to change my routine," he said. "Right now, I have a rest day and then I have my throw day."
That's a question for down the road, I suppose, maybe in August or September. The Mets will worry about that if the need arises. For now, Mets fans can enjoy this ride; Dickey can enjoy his All-Star break. Let's hope we see him pitch in Kansas City, throwing those balls that flutter beautifully through the air.