NEW YORK -- Heady company awaited R.A. Dickey at the completion of Sunday's game -- one in which the knuckleballer qualified for the National League ERA title for the second time and, presumably, for good. With a 2.57 mark, Dickey slipped in just behind hard-throwing Josh Johnson of the Marlins, just ahead of harder-throwing Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies.
And that, to those who have watched him this season, is no surprise.
"He's emerged and evolved as one of the good pitchers in the National league -- period," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said after Dickey tacked seven-plus innings of one-run ball onto his stat sheet in a 5-1 victory over the Astros.
In so many ways, Dickey does not belong in this fraternity. Johnson and Jimenez are both 26 years old, averaging roughly 95 miles per hour on their fastballs and teasing triple digits with a good many of them. Mat Latos and Jaime Garcia, who rank fourth and fifth in the NL, respectively, are even younger.
For a baseball player, Dickey is ancient, a relic at the age of 35, with a low-80s fastball and two different knucklers. Even he feels somewhat awkward in such company.
"I'm trying to just live in the moment," Dickey said. "If the moment says I'm up there with those guys, so be it. I'm awfully thankful. It makes me very appreciative, because I've poured a lot of hard work into getting to this point."
The latest manifestation of that work came Sunday, when Dickey rebounded from a frustrating outing against the Marlins to baffle -- and that is indeed the most accurate word -- the Astros at Citi Field. Other than catcher Jason Castro, who doubled to lead off the third inning and scored on Michael Bourn's single, the Astros could do nothing against Dickey's knucklers.
"He's just tricking guys I think, more than anything," catcher Josh Thole said. "They don't know what to expect."
"He did a good job of really not missing over the plate with a lot of his knuckleballs," Castro said. "He was missing off the plate and it seemed like he was making sure he really wasn't leaving anything over for us to hit. When a guy's doing that, it's tough. The unpredictability of a knuckleball, it's tough to sit on it and develop a pattern for it because it's tough every time."
Sunday, it danced and it dived and it dipped under a dazzlingly blue sky at Citi Field, resulting in two strikeouts and six hits, five of them singles. At a time when his 35-year-old body admittedly feels far from stellar each time he throws, Dickey is still pitching nearly as well as he was back in May and June.
And that's the key for a knuckleballer who continues to evolve. In terms of ability, Dickey believes he has already started approaching his ceiling -- and what a ceiling it is, with Johnson and Jimenez swinging on the chandeliers. But he can still improve to the nth degree by maintaining more and more consistency with his signature pitch.
"It's not throwing a better knuckleball," Dickey said. "It's not throwing one that's nastier or more wicked. It's just repeating the one that I do throw well."
And it's being smarter. In Sunday's game, for instance, Dickey admitted to Manuel that he was not fresh enough to finish the eighth inning if he pitched into trouble. So when the leadoff batter reached, Dickey gave up the ball without argument.
He also provided much of Sunday's necessary offense himself, driving in two runs off Astros starter Bud Norris with a single up the middle in the second. The next batter, Angel Pagan, knocked in another run with a groundout, before Luis Castillo capped the rally with an RBI hit.
Against Norris, the Mets scored only one other run, on Thole's bullet of a homer off the facing of the Pepsi Porch in right field.
"It felt good off my bat," Thole said of his second career home run. "I wouldn't get used to that, but it definitely felt good there."
"That," first baseman Ike Davis said admiringly, "was quite a poke."
And the result was Dickey's ninth victory, tying a career high.
Afterward, he admitted that the personal accolades are nice, despite the fact that team successes come first. But as this Mets season descends into what appears to be a fruitless September, individual achievements may carry more weight than usual.
Dickey will not win the ERA title, nor the NL Cy Young Award nor any other hardware of that type. But the fact that he can even be mentioned in such conversations is astounding. He is a 35-year-old pitcher with no track record of big league success, accomplishing the same things that Johnson and Jimenez have been able to achieve.
At 35, despite his work ethic and his attitude and his competitiveness, Dickey is unlikely to improve to any great degree. He is unlikely to ever steal a major award away from his peers.
But he is hardly over his head or out of his league. And as Dickey admitted, "It's nice to be on the same stat page."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.