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Johan, on the Mound, with the Change-up

The poor Orioles are getting killed at Citi Field, and they don’t have a clue.

Yesterday it was R.A. Dickey, armed with a knuckleball that was for all intents and purposes unhittable, one he used to write the latest chapter of his remarkable story. Greg chronicled R.A.’s second straight one-hitter here [1] yesterday; today Roger Angell — our spiritual father [2] as the pioneer of sportswriting that doesn’t shy from the unabashed fan’s perspective — did so in the New Yorker [3]. From my couch, I mused to myself that Dickey turned to the pitch hoping it would redefine his career, and now it’s possible that his career might redefine the pitch.

I’m serious — Dickey is part of the lineage of knuckleballers, and of course honors his forebears, but he’s an entirely different cat.

The knuckleball has always been baseball’s sideshow act because it is fundamentally out of control — a knuckleballer launches the pitch and lets it do what it will, accepting of the certainty that disastrous days will join glorious ones. On a basic level, that’s anathema to baseball people, which is why knuckleballers have always occupied the baseball fringe. But, again, Dickey isn’t like that. He uses the knuckleball as raw material, changing its speed and elevation and locating it precisely instead of randomly, making the knuckling effect more like the action of a hard-breaking slider or a split-finger. It’s possible Dickey’s just on a remarkable run, and will find himself at the mercy of his strange pitch again. But it’s also possible that he’s found a way to evolve the knuckleball into something else — a quasi-new pitch, made less mysterious and more dangerous, that will be studied and copied and adopted.

However it turns out, R.A.’s remarkable and we’re lucky to have him — but then of course we’re not the Orioles.

Tonight, the bird-killer was Johan Santana, armed with a deadly change-up, a slithery slider, just enough of a fastball and a brain that could teach a master class in pitching. Two starts removed from making history, Johan was back to being Johan 2.0, the marvelous second act that’s also proven pinch-me stuff at Citi Field this year.

Sometime this summer, I was in the park throwing pitches to Joshua, and the kid got curious about the fact that in the big leagues pitchers change speeds and can make the ball curve. Somehow that led us to discussing how hard all this is.

It’s hard to hit a spherical ball with a cylindrical bat, period — I never got the hang of it even when my Little League coaches were throwing underhand. (My kid, alas, has inherited these genes.)

It’s harder to connect sphere and cylinder at the right angle and with enough force that the ball flies off somewhere far enough and fast enough that the guys with gloves can’t catch it.

It’s harder still when the guy holding the ball can throw it faster than you’d want to drive a car on the interstate.

It adds several more degrees of difficulty at least when the guy throwing it can also make the ball bend and break and dive or come in with deceptive sloth and you have to instantly judge whether it’s going in the dirt or inside or outside or MOTHER OF GOD RIGHT AT MY HEAD.

The amazing thing about baseball, when you think about it that way, is that anybody hits at all.

Johan was able to do all those things tonight, meaning a dozen or so of the very best baseball players on the planet had no chance. In the top of the fourth I found myself chuckling and shaking my head at the clinic he put on against Mark Reynolds and Steve Pearce. No score, one out, runners on second and third — and Johan went to work. Change-ups, sliders, fastballs, until you half expected to see Reynolds and Pearce rocking back and forth in the batter’s box, their timing so utterly ruined that they flew apart like cheap tin toys. He was in no particular peril, except for the possibility of his teammates getting him no run support — something Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda and Jordany Valdespin (with an assist from Wilson Betemit) took care of. Johan left at a reassuring 100 pitches, the bullpen was flawless, and the Mets kept rolling [4].

R.A. and Johan. When they’re on, it’s a privilege just to watch them work.

* * *

Speaking of Johan, it was nice to catch sight of Mike Baxter in the dugout, smiling and chatting with Dickey and Mike Nickeas.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself heading to mets.com at least every other day, making a beeline for the video highlights of Johan’s no-hitter [5]. I always play Gary Cohen’s call of David Freese’s strikeout, of course. But my next step, more often than not, is Baxter’s catch. I find myself holding my breath a bit at the fearful-looking trajectory of the ball off Yavier Molina’s bat; at the sight of Baxter scrambling backwards and then sideways, glove outstretched; at the awful, ominous angle of his shoulder driving into the wall and seeming to bend; at the sight of the ball rolling and spinning in the pocket of the glove; and finally at the way Baxter’s mouth pops open as he crumples to the warning track.

R.A. Dickey’s twin one-hitters have been wonderful to witness, yes — but imagine them without Johan’s no-no, without the collective exhalation that preceded never again counting how many games we’d gone without experiencing what 28 other franchises had. Without the It Has Happened game, Dickey’s one-hitters would have come with a side dish of frustration, an extra helping of Woe Is Us. Instead, we’re left to bask in them.

But back to the Whitestone Kid. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become aware that big-league careers are made or undone by the littlest things [6]. A good day at the plate as a fill-in might get you another start, a second good day might get you a chance at a platoon role, a hot streak as a platoon player might get you a starting job, and a starting job might mean you’re a very wealthy man. Or, conversely, if one link in that chain of events breaks, none of it happens, and you’re the answer to a trivia question. Last year few of us thought Baxter was anything but a fill-in, a guy whose Mets debut came with a defense-assisted extra-base hit and the sight of his family jumping up and down in the stands. Nice moment [7], but no reason to think it was more than that.

But this year Baxter got another shot and made the most of it — to the point that the talk was how to fit him into the outfield at the expense of Andres Torres and Jason Bay, or whether he might grab a first baseman’s glove if Ike Davis were Buffalo-bound. Baxter hadn’t quite arrived, but he was on the cusp of it. And then, in preserving a teammate’s no-hitter, it all slammed to a halt. Baxter displaced the sternoclavicular joint [8] between his collarbone and breastbone, a rather delicate joint that’s involved in most every movement the shoulder makes, and tore the cartilage attaching the ribs to the sternum. Such injuries typically take six weeks to heal, after which who knows what price Baxter will have paid in range of motion, not to mention shaking off the rust of a long stint on the DL, getting his timing back, and muscling his way back into a Mets outfield that’s as crowded as when he left. Baseball is a pitiless game, and it’s entirely possible that Baxter may never be able to turn those broken links back into a chain — which would be a price paid for a no-hitter that won’t be remarked upon nearly as often as it deserves.

I hope it’s not the case — I want to see Baxter return in late July, get a standing ovation in his first plate appearance, and pick up right where he left off.

Either way, if Mike Baxter ever buys another beer in this town, Mets Nation has fallen down on the job.