Finally, a meaningful game in September at Citi Field.
True, the matchup could not have been more meaningless in the standings or the overall baseball scheme. Still, it had massive importance to one man, and with him, his teammates and all the people who came to see R.A. Dickey get his 19th win.
By the time it was over, the Mets' 4-3 victory over the last-place Marlins actually did seem like it meant something. Dickey's quest for a 20-win season is the only compelling story and the lone remaining redeeming feature in another lost Mets season, and he took a major step toward achieving it. So there was genuine excitement, with a strong brief side order of angst, in a park that has been plenty empty lately.
"No doubt about it, there's added pressure on every play. It's almost like a no-hitter," manager Terry Collins said.
Jason Bay, who had backed Dickey with a two-run home run against Mark Buehrle in the second, was standing in leftfield thinking what a shame it would be if the pitcher's solid eight innings had been wasted. It wasn't until afterward, when he was asked about it, that he realized how tough a situation it had become after Dickey allowed two runners to reach base in the ninth, and reliever Jon Rauch immediately gave up a three-run home run to John Buck.
"Obviously, R.A. has a lot riding on it, and to not get the win in that situation might have been devastating to the case," Bay said. "I don't think it changes what we do, but you can tell when you're out there that it's different."
You could tell that by the crowd of 30,332 rhythmically singing, "R.A. Dickey," and by the loud, relieved roar when Rauch struck out Gorkys Hernandez to end it. The Mets had preserved the lead and Dickey (19-6) had persevered. He will have a chance on Thursday afternoon to become a 20-game winner, the first Met to earn that status in 22 years.
He already is the first Met to win 19 since Dwight Gooden and Frank Viola did it in 1990 (the latter won one more that year). Dickey, with his paradoxically hard-thrown knuckleball, already did the near impossible by enlivening his home park. He had asked to change his schedule -- pitching Saturday instead of Sunday -- so he could have one last shot to win his 20th at home, against the Pirates, because the fans have been so loyal to him.
"But you had to win today," he said, sounding a bit like a spectator at his own feat. That's what he was, actually, in the ninth. He watched as Rauch followed Buck's homer by going 3-and-0 against Gil Velazquez before getting a generous third-strike call. Pinch-hitter Rob Brantly hit a single and Bryan Petersen grounded into a force out and stole second.
It was not one of those "meaningful games in September" that Fred Wilpon once promised, but it sure was tense until Hernandez struck out.
"It's hard. It is hard. You'd see a lot of 20-game winners out here if it wasn't hard. And a lot of things have to go your way," Dickey said. "I'll be the first to admit that it's not all me. And I'm OK with that."
Dickey did have help Saturday: Scott Hairston hit his 19th homer of a solid season. Josh Thole hit a double in the fifth and scored on a groundout. Still, the Mets know how much Dickey has done. As Bay said, "He does probably the hardest thing you can do, be consistent with an inconsistent pitch."
Everybody knew how meaningful Saturday was for Dickey, including the opposing shortstop. Jose Reyes chatted with him when Dickey reached second in the fifth. Dickey recalled, "He said, 'Don't slide hard, because I want you to win the Cy Young Award.' "