R.A. Dickey has made a career of climbing mountains that could not be scaled, by controlling the uncontrollable, by enduring the unknown. But as he reached for his latest summit Thursday afternoon, with his 20th victory within arm's reach, he never felt more drained.
Only the fans could sustain him now.
"I would hear this kind of growing surge and it really was neat," said Dickey, who led the Mets to a 6-5 win over the Pirates Thursday. "I don't know if I've ever experienced something like that before and maybe I never will again."
With a crowd of 31,506 cheering his every move, Dickey, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last winter to raise awareness for the Bombay Teen Challenge, completed his ascent during the Mets' final 2012 game at Citi Field, becoming the first Mets pitcher since Frank Viola in 1990 to win 20 games. It is the latest peak in a journey that sent Dickey to the fringes of professional baseball before pushing him to the brink of winning a Cy Young Award.
"For me, there's been this steady kind of metamorphosis from just surviving to being a craftsman," Dickey said. "And ultimately, the hope is to be an artist with what you do."
On pure artistic value alone, there was little more he could have done to improve upon his masterpiece. He allowed three runs in 7 2/3 innings but fanned 13, tying a career high.
David Wright hit a three-run homer to give the Mets a 6-3 lead that provided just enough of a cushion for the bullpen, which nearly squandered the advantage. Jon Rauch surrendered a two-run homer to Alex Presley in the ninth inning that put Dickey's victory in peril. But Bobby Parnell retired the final two hitters to make Dickey only the second 20-game winner in the big leagues this year.
"It doesn't always add up like this," Dickey said.
Only seven days earlier on the same field, the Mets hit rock bottom in a 16-1 humiliation by the Phillies. That debacle officially eliminated the Mets from playoff contention. It was witnessed by fewer people than were present to see Keith Hernandez shave his famous mustache for charity before Thursday's game.
The fans scrutinized each of Dickey's 128 pitches. They met each foul ball with groans. They greeted every two-strike count with chants for a strikeout. They provided the energy Dickey needed to push through; he later admitted that he might have pulled himself after six innings.
The Pirates put Dickey in a 2-0 hole behind run-scoring hits by Rod Barajas and Jordy Mercer in the second inning. After Ike Davis hit his 31st home run, Barajas pushed the lead to 3-1 in the fourth by swatting an 0-and-2 knuckler over the leftfield fence.
But the Mets roared back for five runs, capped by Wright's three-run shot in the fifth. The crowd demanded a curtain call; Wright obliged. Given a three-run lead, Dickey slowly regained control of his knuckler as the game went along.
When it came time to hit in the seventh, Dickey already had thrown 111 pitches, but in the dugout, Collins insisted that he push through his fatigue. Dickey even came through with an infield hit, which Collins did not want. But not until there were two outs in the eighth did Dickey exit. Upon taking his leave, he pulled the cap from his head and extended it toward the heavens. "I just kept trying to go, because they'd come and I wanted to give them that gift," he said. "And thankfully it worked out."
Dickey, 37, became only the sixth Mets pitcher to win 20 games in a season, joining Viola, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, David Cone and Tom Seaver. He became the first pitcher to win 20 games for a sub-.500 team since Roger Clemens went 21-7 with the Blue Jays in 1997 and the first knuckleballer to win 20 since the Astros' Joe Niekro in 1980.
Dickey did all those things by gaining control of the knuckleball -- a pitch once considered uncontrollable -- and redefining it as an art form. "The road to where he is today, a lot of people dream about it," Collins said. "Few achieve it."