NEW YORK -- R.A. Dickey walked slowly off the field following his 111th pitch, the last of his seventh inning. An electric Citi Field crowd -- the hungriest, if not the rowdiest, in years -- serenaded him, but Dickey did not acknowledge them. None of his teammates offered a handshake when he returned to the dugout. Near the bat rack, a conference took place.
Finally, after a span of minutes that seemed like hours, Dickey emerged with his bat. The crowd went ballistic.
Such was the scene Thursday at Citi, where Dickey became the league's second 20-game winner amidst the type of jubilant atmosphere that so rarely surfaces here. The Mets beat the Pirates, 6-5, on the strength of their knuckleballer's pitching and David Wright's tie-breaking three-run homer. If Dickey was not the National League Cy Young favorite before Thursday's game, he certainly is now.
"I don't know if I've ever experienced something like that before," Dickey said. "Maybe I never will again."
In beating the Pirates, Dickey became the Mets' first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990, and the sixth man in franchise history to achieve the feat. He also solidified his standing as the Cy Young frontrunner, striking out a career-high 13 Pirates over 7 2/3 innings of three-run ball.
Mets 20-Game Winners
|R.A. Dickey on Thursday became the Mets' ninth 20-game winner, and the franchise's sixth different pitcher to achieve the feat:|
The march back began in the bottom of the fourth, when Hairston singled home Daniel Murphy to draw the Mets back within one. The Mets quickly tied the game an inning later, when Andres Torres drew a leadoff walk, Ruben Tejada singled and Murphy drove him home.
That brought up Wright, who -- one day after breaking Ed Kranepool's franchise hits record -- chased Pirates starter Kevin Correia with a three-run shot into the visitors' bullpen.
"It was the least that we could do," Wright said of the comeback, "for a guy that has picked us up a number of times."
Given a second chance at victory, Dickey did not falter. The knuckleballer retired eight straight batters during one middle-innings stretch, including a run of five consecutive strikeouts. Then, following the bat-rack conference in which manager Terry Collins implored him to feed off the energetic crowd, Dickey struck out two more batters before ending his afternoon on a walk to Travis Snider -- his 128th pitch.
"This was about R.A. today," said Collins, who agreed to shuffle the rotation in order to smooth Dickey's path to 20. "It was about him and his connection with the fans, his connection with the city."
Perhaps never has that connection been stronger than it was Thursday. After Wright hit his home run to put the Mets ahead, fans asked for and received a curtain call. When Dickey retired the side in order in the sixth inning, those above the first-base dugout chanted his name. They even saluted Snider when he robbed Mike Baxter of a homer with a self-described "amazing" leaping catch in the second.
And, of course, fans serenaded Dickey as he walked off the mound in the top of the eighth, tipping his cap to the 31,506 in attendance.
Twice when attempting to describe the afternoon, Collins used the word "cool." Dickey said that he wanted to "suck the marrow out of every second," knowing how rarely in a lifetime these moments occur. Added catcher Josh Thole, who has been with Dickey since his return to the Majors in 2010: "You could tell this was a big day for him."
If the Mets have their way, they will soon ink Dickey to the type of long-term contract extension that will pave the way for bigger days to come -- though at 37 years old, Dickey knows he must appreciate these coolest of moments when they occur. As for his Cy Young chances, it can only help that Dickey is the first man to win 20 games for a losing team since Roger Clemens in 1997.
And yet the knuckleballer's story has never entirely been about numbers. There has always been an anecdotal element to him, given the self-admitted failures of his early career, the challenges of his personal life and the quirks of his signature pitch. Dickey is an everyman, which is why fans have embraced him.
In the wake of his 20th victory, he recalled running the streets of his Nashville neighborhood late at night in 2005, visualizing what it would feel like to be a consistent big league pitcher. He never thought about 20 wins, nor All-Star selections, nor Cy Young awards -- even if this season may net him all three. He dreamed only of growing from a "craftsman" to an "artist," perhaps even one day becoming "supernaturally good."
Even now, as an accomplished ace, Dickey speaks in ideals.
"He's willing to sacrifice everything to be great," Collins said. "I'm so happy for him I can't tell you. In the midst of a tough situation with the way we didn't play very well in the second half, this certainly makes the end of the season very bright."