NEW YORK -- Twelve days after Johan Santana achieved something the Mets seemed destined never to do -- more on that later -- Mike Nickeas crouched behind the plate as one of Santana's teammates, R.A. Dickey, continued doing something most pitchers could
Throwing knuckleball after knuckling knuckleball, Dickey kept reeling off zeros without using much of anything beside his signature pitch. With some exceptions, Nickeas kept catching them, or at least blocking them, or at least making them come to rest some reasonable distance to either side of him.
"I'm running out of ways to try to explain how difficult it is," the Mets' then-backup catcher said that night, before offering one more attempt. "It's really tough."
Nickeas was visibly upset after that night's game, because he allowed two knucklers to squirt by him in the ninth inning of a victory over the Rays, snapping Dickey's franchise-record run of consecutive scoreless innings at 32 2/3. He later apologized profusely to Dickey, which made some sense.
This was a time of the year when the Mets, on a nightly basis, expected pitching perfection.
The month of June began at Citi Field on a night that every Mets fan remembers -- a night that saw Santana mow down Cardinals batters without allowing a hit. It ended with Santana offering his other gem of June, an eight-inning, three-hit, no-run performance in Los Angeles.
In between, Dickey put on a clinic, proving not only that the Mets had the starting pitching chops to compete in the National League East, but that their starting five possessed the potential to be elite.
The jewel highlight came from Santana, whose first career no-hitter seemed destined by some sort of karmic baseball fate. A franchise that -- despite plenty of close calls, would-have-beens and could-have-happeneds -- had never experienced a no-no, finally achieved one on the first night of June. That it required a leaping catch by Mike Baxter and a blown call by umpire Adrian Johnson made it seem all the more fated.
"When things are meant to happen, they're going to happen," said former Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, who hit the would-be double in question.
But to judge the month of June for the Mets on Santana alone would be to overlook a whole lot more greatness. Throughout the balance of the month, it was Dickey, not Santana, who was the Mets' best pitcher, firing consecutive one-hitters in June and amassing the bulk of his scoreless-innings streak.
Barely two years removed from being the first player cut from camp, Dickey allowed a total of five earned runs over six June starts. That was good for a 0.93 ERA, to go along with 55 strikeouts and eight walks in 48 1/3 innings. During one six-start run from late May into mid-June, Dickey was 6-0 with 63 strikeouts, five walks, three complete games and two shutouts.
In retrospect, that was the stretch that won Dickey the NL Cy Young Award.
"I've never seen anything like it," manager Terry Collins said.
He still hasn't.
And Dickey was hardly on an island. Despite some post-no-hitter hiccups, Santana finished the month of June with a 4-2 record and a 2.77 ERA. Jon Niese was 3-1 with a 1.89 mark. Dillon Gee posted a 3.90 ERA in five June starts, and Chris Young chipped in with two wins and a 3.30 mark.
The top three starters in New York's rotation combined to go 11-3 with a 1.79 ERA for the month, while the entire pitching staff finished with a 2.79 ERA -- a mark more than two-tenths better than that of any other Major League team. Opposing batters hit just .219 off the Mets in June. As a result, New York ended the month on an 8-4 run, sitting in first place in the Wild Card standings on the morning of July 1.
It began with Santana's no-hitter, but it did not end there.
In retrospect, the Mets' stumbles in July and August came to define their season more than anything they did that June, though little of that was the fault of their starters. Even so, June gave the Mets hope, lifting their pitchers -- Santana and Dickey chief among them -- into the upper echelon of big league talent.
With Opening Day only three months away, they need not wait until next June for an encore.