PITTSBURGH -- R.A. Dickey understood the decision. He did not want to come out of Tuesday's 3-2 victory over the Pirates, of course, considering the rare command he had of his knuckleball. But Dickey knew that with David Wright suffering through a rare off game and the rest of the lineup doing little to support him, the Mets needed offense more than a few more scoreless innings.
So Mets manager Terry Collins removed Dickey from the game after seven innings and 88 pitches, exposing himself to criticism. But sometimes, what can go wrong does not. Though Andres Torres struck out in place of Dickey, the Mets rallied to give their starting pitcher his sixth win against one loss, vindicating one of his most dominant starts of the season.
"It's the best I've ever seen it in a game," catcher Mike Nickeas said of Dickey's knuckleball. "It was ridiculous."
More than his pitch count, it was Dickey's dominance that made Collins' move in the eighth so curious. The Pirates had not come close to mustering any sustained rallies off Dickey, scoring their only run after Kirk Nieuwenhuis misplayed Josh Harrison's one-out hit in the sixth into a triple.
Dickey walked nobody. He struck out 11, a new career high. And he allowed a total of five hits over seven innings.
"But they were pitching well, too," Dickey said. "You've got to take a shot. I understood that completely."
Though Torres could not reach base, the rally came when the next batter, Mike Baxter, doubled off Andrew McCutchen's glove in center field. After Nieuwenhuis laid off several borderline pitches to draw a one-out walk and Wright struck out, Lucas Duda smoked a Juan Cruz pitch off first baseman Garrett Jones' mitt, plating Baxter with the go-ahead run.
Insurance would be necessary, and Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez provided it with his fielding error on Daniel Murphy's ground ball, giving the Mets their third and final run. A Jose Tabata double and a McCutchen bloop single off Jon Rauch drew the Pirates back within one run in the eighth. But Tim Byrdak struck out Alvarez and Frank Francisco retired the side in order in the ninth inning, recording his 11th save in 13 chances.
That allowed Dickey to win his sixth game, after taking until Aug. 29 to do so last year. The knuckleballer has recorded 20 quality starts in his last 21 outings dating back to last season.
"His numbers coming in are real," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He competes and makes pitches. I was impressed more by the fact he's out there for seven innings, and I only saw two balls hit the dirt. More often than not, with a knuckleball pitcher you see a lot of balls down."
Dickey was able to achieve the opposite, in part because he had rare command of his signature pitch. Often describing his knuckleball as "capricious" due to its tendency to flutter in whatever direction it desires, Dickey on Tuesday had a sense of exactly where each one was going. He exhibited control of three different types of knucklers, including one that fluttered right to left across the strike zone, and one that exploded with late upward movement.
Pitching in temperatures that never dipped below the mid-70s, Dickey was sharp from the start, allowing stray baserunners in each of the first two innings before retiring 10 in a row during one early juncture, half of them via the strikeout.
"He was really good," Collins said. "He was really good."
He needed to be. Wright finished 0-for-4 with three whiffs of his own, snapping his streak of reaching base at 14 consecutive games while lowering his MLB-leading batting average to .403. The Mets are not used to competing with Wright in anything less than top form, as he has been throughout most of this young season. That much showed early, when they were unable to do much of anything against Pirates starter James McDonald, who struck out eight over seven innings.
But Dickey kept the Mets in the game until McDonald was out of it. And Duda came through with the decisive hit, allowing the Mets to bounce back from a tough loss on Monday.
"Today," Duda said, "was a big win. It felt like a big win."