Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey throws during the first inning of...

Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (May 22, 2012) Credit: AP


During the quieter moments, say in the empty dugout at Tropicana Field, hours before Tuesday's batting practice, R.A. Dickey will entertain ideas of what everyone once believed was impossible.

All-Star Game. Cy Young Award.

Achieving the type of status that one day could make $4.25 million -- his salary for this season -- seem underpaid.

Those things still feel like faraway dreams for Dickey, despite carrying baseball's best record (9-1) and a 2.44 ERA into Wednesday night's duel with David Price. But with each successful outing, those hazy visions begin to sharpen in focus -- and it is the line between imagination and reality that starts to blur.

"Golly," Dickey said, leaning back on the wooden bench. "It's hard for me to let myself go there. To be perfectly frank, you do find yourself thinking about all the what-ifs. Because it's fun and it's stuff that you hope for -- that you've hoped for your whole life.

"I just don't let myself visit that place very often because I have a lot of work to do before then and now. But I do hope for them. I do hope to be the best pitcher in the big leagues. I do."

Not a curiosity. Not a fluke. Not an interesting sideshow. You heard him correctly: the best pitcher in the big leagues. The only way to do that is to beat aces like Price, upper-echelon teams like the Rays. And doing it over and over again.

When the Mets badly needed to avoid a sweep Thursday in Washington, Dickey helped deliver the victory with 71/3 scoreless innings. And as the Mets continue to trudge through this make-or-break tunnel of their schedule, Dickey will shoulder that additional weight.

Johan Santana remains the unquestioned No. 1. But Dickey also has proved himself to be a stopper this season, a title that he is reluctant to embrace, if only for its singular meaning.

"You kind of throw that moniker out the window," Dickey said, "because every outing has its own problem set you've got to deal with. I'm a starter, I'm a stopper, I'm a continuer every time I get on the mound."

What Dickey has been to the Mets is extremely valuable. There's no debating that. And with Dickey headed for free agency at the end of this season -- just like David Wright -- he creates some tricky issues for the front office. The Mets hold a $5-million option on Dickey for 2013, so they don't feel pressure, but now there's the risk of his price tag rising considerably.

Back in spring training, Dickey openly expressed his desire for an extension, and the only response from the Mets was that it would be addressed at a later date, possibly during the season. Sandy Alderson said Tuesday that continues to be the club's stance, leaving the door open for an extension before season's end.

Dickey, unlike Wright, said he would welcome negotiations at any time, understanding that the numbers could be much different now than they would have been in March.

"If they pick up the option, great," Dickey said. "But it doesn't change the way I perform. I want to perform because I want to be good. I want to do well for the team. It's not because I want Fred Wilpon and Sandy Alderson to pick up a contract or not -- although that would be nice and I do enjoy being here."

The question then becomes: For how much longer does he plan on doing this? At 37, Dickey is relatively young for a knuckleballer. "My body feels good and I could keep going," Dickey said. "I feel like I'm a good enough athlete and keep myself in good enough shape to be able to go into my mid-40s. I do. And that may end up being the case.

"But I do know this: I'll know when it's time, and whether I've won the Cy Young Award or lost 20 games, that will not be the driving factor. I have no problem going out when other people would say it's too soon."

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months