LOS ANGELES -- With success comes attention, with attention comes demands. After pitching consecutive one-hitters earlier this month against the Rays and Orioles, R.A. Dickey's Q Score shot to the top of Major League Baseball; his celebrity was unmatched. That's what comes of a book deal, a starring role in a documentary and an unfathomable run of success at age 37.
So even before Dickey gave up five runs to the Yankees last weekend in his second-worst start of the season, Mets manager Terry Collins grew wary that all the demands on Dickey's schedule might cause him to falter -- if only just a bit.
Perhaps, as Dickey insisted, it was mere coincidence that he indeed stepped backward at Citi Field. Perhaps not. Either way, Dickey was a far sharper pitcher during Friday's 9-0 victory over the Dodgers, capping his incredible month of June with eight scoreless innings in Chavez Ravine.
"R.A. just continues to cruise along," Collins said. "Certainly it was a big weekend last weekend for him. But he came back tonight with the way he's been pitching -- under control, pound the strike zone, all the things we talk about that he's been so good at, he did tonight."
In doing those things as well as he did, Dickey became the first Major League pitcher to reach 12 wins, icing his status as an All-Star shoo-in and establishing himself the odds-on favorite to start the game for the National League. At Dodger Stadium, he also gave the Mets their third consecutive victory, which Dickey called "the sweetest glass of tea on the table."
Mostly, the knuckleballer has elevated himself to this perch by going 5-0 with a 0.93 ERA in six starts this month, throwing three complete games, pitching two shutouts, not allowing an earned run in five of six outings and going 44 2/3 innings without ceding an earned run at all. Over 48 1/3 June innings, Dickey gave up 21 hits, struck out 55 and walked eight.
"You count the days till he throws," said second baseman Daniel Murphy, who put the game out of reach with a two-run double off Harang in the fifth inning and a three-run homer against Shawn Tolleson in the seventh. "The guy's throwing the ball so well right now and he's set the bar so high. He continues to set it even higher."
Coming off his second-worst start of the season, which just so happened to be his most-hyped outing in front of a national television audience, Dickey jumped right back into the groove that he had established earlier this month in pitching consecutive one-hitters. For a long while, it seemed as if he might even throw his third one-hitter in four starts, after Andres Torres pulled up short in front of pitcher Aaron Harang's routine third-inning fly ball.
The resulting single was the only hit Dickey allowed over the first six innings, before giving up a clean hit to A.J. Ellis in the seventh and a double to Tony Gwynn in the eighth.
The only other Dodgers baserunner against Dickey came with two outs in the sixth, when Dickey plunked Dee Gordon with a first-pitch, 84 mph fastball -- an offering that Dickey said had "slipped." But because it came half an inning after Harang hit Ruben Tejada with a pitch of his own, that prompted home-plate umpire Todd Tichenor to warn both benches. There were no further incidents in the game.
Tejada earned Harang's attention by rapping out three of his career-high four hits against him, reaching base five times in total and scoring twice. But he was hardly alone. Lucas Duda snapped an 0-for-15 skid with a run-scoring single in the fifth off Harang, while David Wright opened the scoring with an RBI single in the third.
Mostly, though, the night belonged to Dickey, taking advantage of a Dodgers team playing without injured stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Dickey faced just one significant jam all game, walking Bobby Abreu and giving up his second hit to Ellis with one out in the seventh. But the knuckleballer promptly induced James Loney to hit into an inning-ending double play, ending the threat.
"With a guy like him, we're obviously not the only club at this point who he has given trouble to," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "To me, if you are in the East and you see this guy three or four times, then maybe you can come up with a little better game plan on how you want to deal with him."
So far, the East has fared no better, which is why Dickey is a lock to head to Kansas City next month -- and why Collins has been kicking around the idea of squeezing an extra start out of him on short rest before the break. That seems unlikely to happen at this point, with the manager wary of messing with Johan Santana's schedule. But it nonetheless speaks to how important Dickey has become to this rotation.
And if he starts for the NL in his first All-Star Game at age 37, it will only add validation to the league's most perplexing pitch.
"Just getting to the All-Star Game would be fantastic," Dickey said. "Obviously it would be a tremendous honor, and I think it would give a real legitimacy to the knuckleball. A lot of people think the knuckleball is a gimmick. I like to try to prove that it's much more than that."