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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

2012 Mets' fate hinges on Dickey

R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets

R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Yankees. (June 24, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

The most valuable player on the Mets also might be the most vulnerable.

For everything that R.A. Dickey has accomplished, there's no debating the critical role he's played in getting the Mets back to respectability.

Well ahead of schedule, too.

But unlike CC Sabathia, the Yankees' $122-million ace, Dickey is a one-trick pitcher. It's a fantastic trick, the knuckleball, except on nights when it doesn't feel much like dancing. And when that happens, when the magic disappears, Dickey becomes ordinary and the Mets wind up in serious trouble.

Dickey looked human for the first time in a long while Sunday night as the Yankees bounced him after six innings and his ERA jumped from 2.00 to 2.31. His streak of consecutive innings without allowing an earned run ended at 442/3 when Mark Teixeira hit a sacrifice fly in the third. Then Nick Swisher smacked a three-run homer that caromed off the back wall in centerfield, clearing the new fence.

"All good things come to an end, right?" Dickey said. "It's just the way of it. Now it's time to begin another streak."

The night was a shocking reversal for Dickey, who was coming off back-to-back one-hitters and had won six straight games and nine straight decisions. The Mets also must have been momentarily shaken en route to a 6-5 loss at Citi Field.

"As controllable as the knuckleball has been for me," he said, "it's still a very violent, very fickle pitch from time to time, and she did not cooperate on a couple of different occasions."

What's going on with Dickey is more far-reaching than personal accolades. A turn in next month's All-Star Game is all but assured, and Dickey belongs in the Cy Young conversation. But if he loses momentum, that will put a serious drag on the Mets' hopes of contending.

"I'm certainly surprised, as well as he's been pitching," Terry Collins said. "But it happens. The command of his knuckleball was not what it had been. And when you face [the Yankees], they take a lot of pitches. It's just one of those games."

Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in franchise history, but his tenure as Mets ace is over. That's Dickey's title now. He has become the most indispensable Met, even if Sandy Alderson is reluctant to pick favorites from his 25-man roster.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say that about any one individual," he said before the game. "He's the most indispensable tonight."

Just take a look at Dickey's supporting crew for the Subway Series finale, a lineup that had Justin Turner at first base instead of Ike Davis, still recovering from a bout with bad oysters.

But as Alderson ponders a contract extension, he's not about to inflate Dickey's price by pumping up his importance to the Mets, even in conversation. He's in the final season of a two-year, $7.8-million deal and the Mets hold a $5-million option for 2013, so the team is willing to wait.

That price likely is headed up. Dickey is responsible for 11 of the Mets' 42 wins, and by averaging 7.07 innings per start, with three complete games, he's been integral in preserving what little Collins can get from an awful bullpen. Entering Sunday, it had a 5.30 ERA, worst in the majors, and Frank Francisco was placed on the disabled list with an oblique strain before the game.

Predictably, the bullpen cost the Mets dearly again, yet another reminder of how much it meant when Dickey went wire to wire. He realizes it, too.

"If you're going to get beat, you're going to get beat with your bread and butter, and I've been throwing a good knuckleball," Dickey said. "I don't feel like I got beat around the park. I gave up one big swing."

Dickey had been doing things that no one else had ever done, and the Mets are willing to accept this game as an aberration. If Dickey is to be believed, he's tamed the pitch, which is the equivalent of teaching a rhinoceros to fetch your newspaper.

"I feel like I have an answer," Dickey said. "I feel like I know what I'm doing."

The Mets must hope he's right about that.

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