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R.A. to the Rescue

I’m off to Red Sox country for my 25th high-school reunion tomorrow, so today’s game was a radio affair while working, with Howie and Josh painting the word picture from their perch in the ionosphere above Nationals Park. With R.A. Dickey on the mound, the game passed by like the cool breeze from an ambling, unhittable knuckleball. Dickey is on a remarkable roll: He’s the first in the big leagues to nine wins, which is one win more than he had all of last year; he’s pitching to an ever-diminishing 2.44 ERA; he’s striking out hitters in bushels and hardly walking any; and next week he has a shot at matching Jerry Koosman’s club mark of 31 2/3 scoreless innings. (I could also mention Mike Pelfrey’s streak of 27 scoreless innings, but I’m working assiduously to edit Mike Pelfrey out of my personal Mets history.) If Dickey keeps pitching the way we’ve come to expect that he will, he seems like a lock for the All-Star Game, which would be great fun to see unless you’re Yadier Molina or Buster Posey.

We’ve said it before, in various ways, but it bears repeating: I sometimes have to pinch myself by way of reminder that R.A. Dickey is a real person, and not the figment of a blogger’s overheated imagination. W.P. Kinsella once wrote a short story called “How I Got My Nickname,” in which the ’51 Giants are all well-read intellectuals who declaim like Ken Burns talking heads. It’s an amusing fantasy designed to appeal to baseball eggheads like me, but Dickey would fit right into that imaginary dugout. Yet he’s not some professorial bit player — he’s the Mets’ best starting pitcher, a ferocious competitor and (lest we forget) a phenomenal athlete. He just happens to throw a strange finesse pitch, and have the intellect and temperament for analyzing how he does it.

Lucas Duda’s two-run shot was enough to back R.A. up — it was 2-0 for most of the afternoon but felt like 20-0 — and the Mets played sound defense for a change, with a particular tip of the cap going to Omar Quintanilla, playing with a finger that needed X-rays before the game and will get another set tomorrow. Quintanilla’s not who we’d like at shortstop, but he’s what we have for the next week or so until Ronny Cedeno gets back. (And if Quintanilla should join the ranks of the disabled, please God bring up Sean Kazmar or Wilfredo Tovar or shift over David Wright or do anything that doesn’t involve Jordany Valdespin making errors at Yankee Stadium. There’s only so much I can take.)

The Mets didn’t need this game any more or less than they need any win on the way to however many victories they’ll amass in 2012 — but with two sluggish, dispiriting losses behind them and the Subway Series looming, it was sure nice to have have it [1]. Thanks to the math of the standings, they leave D.C. only a game worse than they arrived — well ahead, as Greg noted [2], of any place we could have reasonably expected to find them by now.

A last note before we see the Nats again: I came into this season expecting to loathe Bryce Harper, having heard the tales of his batting-box rituals and his Braveheart eyeblack and his minor-league antics. But after watching him in the first few games after his callup, I found I couldn’t do it. Loathe Harper? Hell, I loved him. Besides having a Mickey Mantle package of skills, Harper plays baseball the way you’d hope to see it played. I’m not talking about his adherence to baseball’s nebulous code, as enforced by a meathead like Cole Hamels. Rather, it’s that Harper plays the game hell for leather, devouring it with equal parts joy and greed. To reuse Pete Rose’s famous line, he looks like he’d walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.

Harper was a muted factor in this first series against the Nats with him in attendance. Yeah, he won the first game, but on a little humpbacked liner that Vinny Rottino couldn’t get to — a hit more well-placed than well-struck. It won’t be the first time Harper beats us, or the most impressive way he’ll do so — before he’s done he’ll beat us with majestic home runs and liners up the gap and laser-beam throws, too. I’m not going to enjoy any of those recaps — in fact, I dread thinking how many times it’ll happen. But at the same time, I’ve got a feeling that in a 20 years or so I’ll regard the Mets being beaten by Bryce Harper the same way I came to regard the Mets being beaten by Tony Gwynn: I didn’t like it, but I also knew I’d tell my grandkids about it.