The image of the day, if you want to know what it's like to hit against R.A. Dickey, came from Marlins cleanup hitter Gaby Sanchez -- who swung through a 78-mph knuckleball for strike three and stumbled across the plate as if he were auditioning to play Inspector Clouseau.
"You've got to anticipate where the ball's going to go," Sanchez said later Sunday afternoon, "and I guessed wrong . . . Usually when I faced him, his ball would go in. Those were going all the way [outside]."
"That's all you can do," Mets catcher Josh Thole said, flashing a sympathetic smile. "You think it's going to move one way and it moves a totally different way."
Unpredictable pitch, predictable results? Dickey, arguably the most surprising performer of any team for the 2010 season, kicked off 2011 looking quite the same. In helping the Mets defeat Florida, 9-2, he provided one more morsel of evidence that he's no one-year wonder.
"When I go out there, I have a pretty high expectation of myself," Dickey said. "So I just want to try to meet my expectation every time, regardless of the past or the future."
The Mets will enter Citizens Bank Park Tuesday with a 2-1 record and a bucket full of confidence; the Saturday and Sunday victories provided a short-term dose of relief to everyone in and around the organization. Yet those same people can cite chapter and verse (2010, 2009, 2007 . . . ) about the meaninglessness of a good start.
Dickey himself, however, represents a different concept at play. What can the Mets expect from a guy who put together the best year of his career -- by far -- at age 35?
The new front office believed sufficiently in Dickey's knuckleball to recommend a two-year, $7.5-million extension in January. Sunday's outing (one unearned run, five hits, three walks and seven strikeouts in six innings) provided the first return on that investment. Dickey overcame some wildness that resulted from what he called "swirling wind" on the field.
"I think it's just a matter of me being self-aware, knowing what my body's got that day. What kind of knuckleball I have that day and who I'm facing," Dickey said. "And all of those collectively. If I can manage all that in my mind, I can usually manage an outing pretty well."
Marlins catcher John Buck faced Dickey only twice before (in 2009) and has hit against Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield 12 times. Even though Buck ripped a second-inning double, he came away extremely impressed.
"With Wake, you just wait for it. [With Dickey], it's more like a guy who throws a hard split-finger that moves a little bit more," Buck said. "He can bring it. It's not just the same type of approach, because if you wait, Dickey can blow it past you."
Dickey made 26 starts and a relief appearance for the Mets last year, and he provided about three wins above a replacement-level pitcher, if you average out the calculations by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com. A duplication of that, over a full season -- remember, Dickey began 2010 at Triple-A Buffalo -- would put him at about four Wins Above Replacement, which gets you in the neighborhood of what Johan Santana gave the Mets last year.
The Mets might need a Dickey-esque miracle from Chris Young or Chris Capuano (who looked shaky in relief Sunday in his Mets debut) on top of Dickey's excellence in order to contend this season.
On Day 3, however, the Mets would settle for a well-pitched game. And for that image of Sanchez, a respected division rival, nearly swinging himself into the ground.