NEW YORK -- R.A. Dickey still needs to work on his endings. He was brilliant last Monday in Houston, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning, only to lose his chance at victory during a five-batter stumble. And he was even better Sunday, only to lose his shutout during a quick flash of offense in the ninth.
In all other matters, Dickey has been everything the Mets have asked him to be. With a knuckleball that his teammates described as "nasty" and "dirty," he came within three outs of a shutout Sunday at Citi Field, in what became a 3-1 victory over the D-backs.
"I see what he's doing," second baseman Daniel Murphy said, "and I'm really glad he's on my side."
If Dickey was sharp last week in holding the Astros hitless through five, he was sharper Sunday over his first three perfect innings. No Arizona batter reached base until Gerardo Parra hit a perfectly placed fly ball down the left-field line for a double. Dickey allowed just three other hits and four walks on the afternoon, striking out four.
The only problem -- and it was a relatively minor one -- was that the D-backs saved two of those baserunners for the ninth, after Mets manager Terry Collins allowed Dickey to pursue his first complete-game shutout since Aug. 13, 2010. Mostly, Dickey was angry with himself for walking the leadoff batter that inning, after Collins gave him more rope than he has provided any Mets starter all season. Moments earlier, he had allowed Dickey to bat in the bottom of the eighth at 109 pitches.
Despite moving to 4-1 with the victory -- which came only after relievers Tim Byrdak and Frank Francisco sandwiched a pair of warning track fly balls around a strikeout -- Dickey said it would probably take him "about 45 miles into our bus ride to Philly" before he would stop steaming about his ninth-inning performance.
"I was much more angry about putting Terry in a tough spot there," Dickey said. "That's my game."
Collins, for his part, was thrilled that Dickey submitted the type of performance that he did on the heels of Johan Santana's strong start Saturday. As a result, an overworked bullpen has pitched just three innings over the last two games, both of them victories for the Mets.
"I'm glad he leans on us," Dickey said of his manager. "It will help us in the long run down in the 'pen, and it also is a great vote of confidence. It shows he supports us and wants us to do well."
It helped, of course, that the Mets jumped on D-backs starter Trevor Cahill early, touching him for two runs on Murphy's single in the first inning. Josh Thole later added an RBI single against Cahill, who lasted seven innings -- and to his credit, pitched well enough to win.
But Dickey was better. Frustrated last week by his inability to convert a good knuckleball into a victory, Dickey endured no such problems Sunday. His signature pitch was so sharp early that at one point, Collins allowed himself to believe this might be the day the Mets would finally score a no-hitter.
That it ultimately became the 7,996th game in franchise history without a no-no was a side note; that figure may garner more attention Friday, when Santana starts the 8,000th game in franchise history. If someone is to snap that streak anytime in the next thousand games, Collins noted that Dickey "has as good a chance as anybody."
"Knuckleballers are tricky," D-backs outfielder Justin Upton said. "They've either got a good one or a flat one, and it was a good one for the first seven innings."
Not everything was so rosy Sunday for the home team, who lost shortstop Ruben Tejada to a strained right quad and mustered only six hits of their own. The Mets did take two of three from the D-backs, but still have not made up all the ground they lost last week in Houston.
Then again, if Dickey can settle into the type of groove he enjoyed last summer, stringing together 12 consecutive quality starts to end the season, the Mets will not have to endure many more four- or five- or six-game losing streaks. Dating back to last July, Dickey has delivered quality starts -- six or more innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs -- in 17 of his last 18 outings.
His knuckleball was so sharp Sunday that early in the game, Mets infielders gathered with third-base coach Tim Teufel to adjust their defensive positioning. Turner and Murphy did not want to let a cheap hit scoot past them, given the overwhelming likelihood that it would not be hit hard.
"I could see the ball moving all over the place," backup shortstop Justin Turner said. "I'm glad I get to play behind him, and don't have to go up there and hit against him."