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The R.A.refied Air of an 18th Win

Now he’s at 18. Now this is getting to be a whole other kind of fun.

Oh, it was good, clean, dry fun — no rain, please; it disturbs everything for which he stands — from early on this season. And it was a veritable overflowing fountain cup of fun in the middle of the year so big that if Michael Bloomberg knew about it he’d have tried to restrict its consumption. But now it’s September, and the fun is getting something close to historic. And if you can’t have historic team fun in September, the individual kind is a very, shall we say, appealing consolation prize.

When the Mets went to the trouble of noticing Adron Chambers failed to touch second base on his way back to first base after the second out of the ninth inning and converted his mistake into a 9-4-6 double play approved by the eagle-eyed umpiring crew working this Mets-Cardinals series, R.A. Dickey nailed down his 18th win of the 2012 season [1]. R.A. Dickey nailed it down with three arms to hold it aloft — those belonging to Josh Edgin, Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco — but it was he who could take the leonine [2] share of the credit for salvaging some Met dignity in St. Louis, with the 6-2 win landing squarely in the Dickey column.

If it were anybody else putting up any lesser number at this point in the schedule, we wouldn’t care and we probably wouldn’t notice. Quick, how many wins does any other pitcher on the Mets’ roster have at the moment? I watch this team every single day and I have mostly no idea.

Not unlike last September when we put aside our reservations over promoting the efficacy of batting averages [3] when one of our own closed in on having the best one in the league, I think we’re all willing to forget that we long ago figured out [4] that a pitcher’s wins are an outmoded, no more than marginally useful metric. Remember how it felt baseball had just gotten a little bit smarter when Tim Lincecum won the National League Cy Young Award with 15 wins in 2009? And smarter still when Felix Hernandez won the American League version with 13 wins in 2010? It was validation of something so many of us had been learning and espousing: that being the best starting pitcher and compiling a stack of individual victories were not necessarily overlapping competencies. Skill informed the former. Luck had a lot to do with the latter.

But now, as R.A. Dickey carries a record of 18 wins and 4 losses into the final weeks of 2012, I can assure you I don’t care about any of that. The WHIP and the ERA+ and the BABIP…save it for calculus class, Poindexter. R.A. Dickey has 18 wins. It’s the most wins any Mets pitcher has had since 1990, when Doc Gooden had 19 and Frank Viola had that many plus one. There have been only 15 such seasons of 18 or more wins in Mets history, and only seven Mets pitchers have crafted them.

Current Met R.A. Dickey’s current season is one of those seasons.

It’s history, but it’s going on right in front of us. It’s persevered from April to September. It’s unfolding (as opposed to unraveling) like nothing’s unfolded for a Met pitcher in 22 years. There are always dreadful reasons for why it never happens anymore. Pitchers aren’t left in long enough. Relievers are flammable. Offenses offer no support. Yet in 2012, R.A. Dickey and the Mets have short-circuited all the problems and brought him to this rarefied air. Dickey throws a knuckler and doesn’t require hair-trigger removal as pitch counts rise. The bullpen that costs non-knuckleballers wins isn’t as much of a factor for him, and Thursday afternoon in St. Louis (as has amazingly been the case for a while now), its inhabitants proved themselves Met assets. And somehow, unlike every acelike pitcher in the post-Gooden/Viola era — stretching from Saberhagen to Santana — Dickey regularly gets enough runs with which to work wonders.

He has this year, anyway. He got five against the Cardinals (three on an Ike Davis dinger), plus one that came later. He and his successors gave up two. Luck? It rained on Busch Stadium in the morning, and Dickey won. The tarp was on the field ten minutes past the game’s designated start time, and Dickey won. David Wright didn’t play, and Dickey won. Adam Wainwright homered, and Dickey won. Chambers overran second base in attempting to get back to first after the second out of the ninth inning was secured and the Mets appealed. The Mets appealed a play against the Cardinals in this series and these [5] umpires upheld the appeal. With that, the Cardinals lost. The Mets won. Dickey won. Dickey won his 18th game against four losses.

R.A. Dickey is an 18-game winner, which would be impressive enough if this was his last start, but he has, more or less, another five starts on tap (though who can tell exactly with this nonsensical six-man rotation?). R.A. Dickey is closing in on a 19-win season, something achieved only 11 times in times in Mets history, by five Mets pitchers. Beyond 19, if one dares to lean forward, is a number that, for all the statistically advanced insights we’ve garnered as a people over the past generation, still looms as magical. I almost don’t want to say it for fear of jinxing it. Let’s just say R.A. is one win away from 19 for now, and if he can get that, we’ll inject the magical number then.

The circumstances surrounding Jose Reyes winning the Mets’ first batting title grew unnecessarily messy, but boy did I enjoy the journey [6]. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced as a Mets fan, which I think is why it was so much fun. I’d never seen a Met hit 40 homers before Todd Hundley did it in 1996 or drive in 100 runs before Rusty Staub did it in 1975, and those were fun for the same reason. They were new to us. There was the surge of the unknown transforming into something intensely familiar, a Met reaching a milestone previously nonexistent in our experiential vocabulary.

R.A. Dickey reaching an 18th win, on the other hand, isn’t new to any Mets fan who can remember 18 wins not being that big a whoop. Between 1968 and 1976, Jerry Koosman won an 18th game twice and Tom Seaver did it six times. Between 1985 and 1990, David Cone did it once, Bobby Ojeda did it once, Viola did it once and Gooden did it three times. That’s what makes this a different kind of thrill. Pitchers winning lots of games is in our DNA. It’s Seaver and it’s Gooden and it’s Koosman. It’s who we are so much more than anything regarding hitting. It’s a part of our being that I didn’t realize was missing until I began to feel it come back.

When R.A. won his 17th game against the Marlins in his previous start [7] (also with Ike homering), it truly registered in my Mets fan soul. We hadn’t had a 17th win since Al Leiter got one in 1998, which was the most since 1990 and hadn’t been touched for a baker’s dozen years thereafter. We talked for so long about how could a team with Seaver and Gooden and Koosman not yet have a no-hitter? I quietly wondered how a team with Leiter and Jones and Reed and Hampton and Trachsel and Martinez and Gl@v!ne and Santana couldn’t get another 17th win between 1999 and 2011. When I was growing up, 17 seemed like what separated “very good” from merely “good”. Leiter was very good in 1998 (2.47 ERA), and all he could get to was the baseline of “very good” by my deep-seated reckoning. Al had to deal with premature hooks and bullpen implosions and offensive brownouts and the vagaries of misfortune…just like all Mets starters seemed destined to do.

Over the next 13 seasons, I incrementally lowered my expectations [8], reasoning a pitcher’s individual wins weren’t what they were cracked up to be when I was a kid, and that win totals of 16 and 15 — reached 11 times by nine Mets pitchers between 1999 and 2011 — were perfectly representative of good, sometimes very good pitching, and that there was so much more to the panoply of metrics that determined what constituted good and very good pitching. But then, in late August of 2012, R.A. Dickey won his 17th game of the year, and I was reminded what a season’s worth of sustained great pitching — sans excuses — looked like. And in early September of 2012, he won his 18th, and I had every good reason to invoke Koosman and Gooden and Seaver, because for the first time in an eternity, we had a man ascending their mound, toeing their rubber, joining their echelon.

This really is fun.