NEW YORK -- At various points this season, R.A. Dickey has resisted the word "stopper" as a self-descriptor. Dickey does not want to be known as the type of pitcher who halts losing streaks, but rather the type who begins winning streaks.
Come Sunday, Dickey will have no control over whether the Mets parlay his latest shutdown outing into a positive run. All the Mets know is that at the nadir of one of their least productive stretches in history, Dickey set the Mets right in Saturday's 3-1 win over the Astros at Citi Field.
"This is one in a row for us," manager Terry Collins said.
It was not vintage Dickey; at some point in the early innings, the right-hander realized that he felt a bit "run down" and could not rein his best knuckleball. But against the worst team in baseball, it was enough. Dickey set down the first 10 batters he faced without allowing a baserunner, then used Ronny Cedeno's fine double play pivot to escape a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth.
Houston's only run came two innings later, when Dickey plunked Scott Moore and allowed a single to the next batter, putting runners on the corners with no outs. After Cedeno made another strong play to snare Jason Castro's line drive, Moore scored on a wild pitch.
"I just didn't feel great," Dickey said. "Today was a particularly difficult day because it was incredibly humid. I had worked out of some jams early on. You're not going to go out there and feel great every single time. I had a pitch count that I should have thrown a complete game, but the way I felt, it would have been selfish of me to not be honest about that."
And so Dickey came out of the game after seven innings and 86 pitches, putting the Mets in a perilous position: With their offense slumping to historic lows and their bullpen ranking 30th in baseball, the Mets needed to find a way to translate Dickey's gutty performance into a win.
A breakout offensive game seemed imminent when the Mets put their first two batters on in the first inning, then loaded the bases with two outs. But after Fernando Abad escaped that jam, the Mets did not score until Dickey plated Cedeno on a swinging bunt in the fourth.
The Mets did manage to drive up Abad's pitch count, knocking him out after four innings. But they didn't do much better against Houston's bullpen, with Justin Turner's first home run in more than a year coming in the sixth.
It was not until Jason Bay, making a rare start in the outfield, drilled an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth that the Mets felt any sort of comfort. That hit snapped an 0-for-14 slump for Bay, not to mention a stretch of seven straight games in which the Mets scored two or fewer runs. Given that sort of rare offensive backing, relievers Jon Rauch, Josh Edgin and Frank Francisco mowed down the final six batters without incident.
"I guess three is the magic number," Turner said of his team's offensive output.
From a personal standpoint, Dickey's outing bolstered his National League Cy Young Award credentials -- though not to any great statistical extent. The knuckleballer lowered his ERA to 2.76, fourth in the NL. But he only struck out two batters, leaving him tied with Stephen Strasburg for tops in the NL.
Perhaps most significant to Dickey's Cy Young hopes was his 16th victory, also tied for most in the league. Dickey, who became the Mets' first 16-game winner since Johan Santana in 2008, is the only NL pitcher to rank in the top four in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
"You can't say enough about Dickey," Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "You hear about him on TV, the All-Star, but when you watch it live, that pitch is tough to hit."
Dickey credited his defense as a whole, and Cedeno in particular, for allowing him to win his 16th game. And he called it a "fun challenge" to compete with something less than his best knuckleball.
It is a skill that could come in handy. To become the first Mets pitcher to win 20 games since Frank Viola in 1990, Dickey will need to emerge victorious in more than half of his remaining starts. But at the end of a long, grinding season, he may not feel at his best while pursuing that.
"We think this guy's invincible," Collins said. "He's starting to get as run down as anybody else. So we've got to keep an eye on him."