NEW YORK -- For several weeks earlier this summer, R.A. Dickey was the biggest story in baseball. He was dominating hitters with a knuckleball and playing for a contending team in the nation's biggest city.
Then Dickey hit a momentary speed bump, the Mets fell out of the thick of the playoff hunt, and as quickly as he became a darling, Dickey kind of disappeared from the national consciousness. It's time to pay attention again.
The 37-year-old flutterballer with the remarkable backstory turned in one of his best games of the year on Thursday in a 6-1 win over the Marlins. He allowed a run on five hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks, and did so on a day when his location wasn't quite where he wanted it to be in the early going.
Dickey may never again show the dominant form he displayed in May and June of this year, when he overwhelmed hitters for weeks on end. But that's hardly a fair standard. We may not see that kind of pitching from Roy Halladay or Felix Hernandez or Justin Verlander either.
More important, the version of Dickey who stumbled through a rough couple of weeks around the All-Star break also appears to be gone, and the Mets could soon have their first Cy Young Award winner in 27 years. Not that he's thinking about it.
"Awards or numbers of games won, that needs to be an organic thing," Dickey said. "It needs to happen as part of a process of going out there every day, preparing your body to throw 200-plus innings and give your team a chance to win every time. If I can be in a place where I know I've done that, I can breathe easy."
If he wins the award, it won't be based on one day or six weeks, but on a full season of outstanding work.
"It's been incredible to watch him all year long," said Mets manager Terry Collins. "The command, the movement, the swings that have been taken. He lost it for, what, a week? Two starts maybe? And now it's back."
Dickey made it three straight starts with fewer than three earned runs. He picked up his league-leading fourth complete game and didn't issue a walk, the first time he's managed that in a start since June 13.
He got better as he went along. In the early going, it didn't look like Dickey had his best command. He was leaving knuckleballs up in the strike zone, and some even up above the zone. By the late innings, though, the pitch was diving just like it was supposed to, and the Marlins were cooked.
"I got stronger as the game went on today, for sure," Dickey said, "and I was pleased with that. I was thankful that I'm in a position where my body feels good in the latter innings. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, I felt better than I did in the first five."
In a crowded National League Cy Young Award field, Dickey may have created a little bit of separation on Thursday. A slew of candidates have some claim on the award, and of course things can change a lot over the season's final eight weeks.
But with Stephen Strasburg expected to be shut down, Zack Greinke in the American League and Johnny Cueto showing the faintest signs of mortality lately, Dickey may only need to hold serve to win the award. He likely doesn't need another run like he had earlier this season.
Dickey has the traditional stats, recording his league-leading 15th win on Thursday, and boosting his Senior Circuit-topping strikeout total to 166. Dickey leads the league or is tied for first in pretty much every major category except ERA, from innings (162 1/3) to complete games to shutouts (tied for first, two) to WHIP (1.00). He's fourth in ERA, nearly half a run behind the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong, but Vogelsong's huge home-road split may cost him.
Other candidates will likely include relievers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, and there could be sentiment for dark horses like A.J. Burnett or Jordan Zimmermann. But no one else has the well-rounded case that Dickey does.
In addition to the baseball-card numbers, Dickey also fares well in the advanced stats. Even before Thursday's game, he ranked third in the NL in FIP (fielding-independent pitching, a measure of pitching that focuses on strikeouts, walks, and home runs), and second in WAR (wins above replacement, as calculated by Fangraphs.com).
And it looks like all of those numbers may start getting better again.
"I hope the next eight starts are like this one," Collins said.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.