NEW YORK (AP) — R.A. Dickey was so close yet so far from 20 wins, faltering from fatigue and fuming he had failed to seize the moment.
"About the fourth or fifth inning I felt exasperated. I was not myself today for the most part," he said.
"And then I'd come out for an at-bat and I would hear this kind of growing surge, and it really was neat. I mean I don't know if I've ever experienced something like that before. Maybe I never will again. Although I wasn't distracted from the moment, how could you not be motivated to go out there and give the fans and, well, your teammates and yourself all that you have?" he said.
Absorbing the energy from 31,506 fans at the final home game of another sorry Mets season, Dickey summoned his strength and concentration. David Wright boosted him into the lead with a tiebreaking three-run homer, and Dickey led New York over Pittsburgh Pirates 6-5 Thursday to become the first knuckleballer in more than three decades to win 20 games.
"It's like a big exhale," Dickey said.
Throwing his hard knuckler at up to 78 mph, Dickey (20-6) allowed three runs and eight hits in 7 2-3 innings, tying his career high with 13 strikeouts and walking two.
With New York winding up its fourth straight losing season, he capped a trinity of highlights that began with the first Mets no-hitter by Johan Santana in June and continued with Wright setting the team career hits record on Wednesday.
"This was about R.A. today," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "It was about him. It was about his connection with the fans, the connection with the city. And so I said use that."
Quite a turnaround from 2010, when Dickey began the season at Triple-A Buffalo and had to prove he belonged in the majors. And from last year, when he was 8-13.
The 37-year-old had never won more than 11 games in any previous season is just 61-56 in his big league career.
"I was the picture of mediocrity by my own admission," he said.
But in the late stages of his career, he has mastered the knuckler — a pitch that has flummoxed most of those who have tried and must survive on fastballs.
"I think everybody here today would have taken one swing where they thought they were going to crush one and they swung right throw it," Pirates outfielder Travis Snider said.
Dickey had never set a numerical goal for his pitching.
"It's just much more for me if I can really harness the moment and suck the marrow out of every second, then I've done what I want to do and I can be satisfied," he said.
Dickey became the first 20-game winner for the pitching-proud Mets since Frank Viola in 1990 and the first knuckleballer to accomplish the feat since Houston's Joe Niekro in 1980, according to STATS LLC. Viola also reached 20 with a win over the Pirates.
New York had altered its rotation, giving Dickey a chance to win 20 at home. The fans gave Dickey his first ovation when he walked to the bullpen to warm up. He waved his cap as they applauded when he walked off after his 128th and final pitch — his most in eight years — and got a final round of applause when he returned to the field for a postgame interview that was broadcast over the stadium sound system.
"Growing up, you just want to compete. And once you have the weaponry to compete, you want to be really good," he said. "And then when you're really good, you want to be supernaturally good. And I think for me there's been this steady kind of metamorphosis from just surviving to being a craftsman. Ultimately the hope is to be an artist with what you do."
The milestone following two life-changing events. He authored a book last spring, "Wherever I Wind Up," revealing he was a sexual abuse victim when he was 8. And he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for the Bombay Teen Challenge.
"When you get to a comfort level about who you are and you don't have secrets and you feel the freedom to be who you feel like you're called to be, that's something," Dickey said. "Is this the result of the cathartic experience of writing the book, I don't know. I'm going to say this, it certainly hasn't hurt. And to be comfortable in your own skin, which I was not for so long in my life, there's something to that."
His memorable year began with a climb to the 19,341-foot Uhuru Peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
"He was taking his career and putting it in jeopardy, putting it in harm's way," Collins said. "You don't know what's going to happen. But it wasn't about him. It has never been about him."
Dickey joined Washington's Gio Gonzalez as the top winners in the majors — until Gonzalez beat the Phillies to improve his record to 21-8. They figure to duel for the NL Cy Young Award.
Dickey fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 and overcame an outstanding, climbing catch by Snider more than 2 feet above the right-field wall that robbed Mike Baxter of a tying home run in the second inning.
Former Texas teammate Rod Barajas hit an opposite-field RBI double that hopped the right-field wall in the second, and Jordy Mercer following with a run-scoring infield single.
Ike Davis led off the bottom half with his 31st homer, but Barajas boosted the lead to 3-1 when he homered on an 0-2 pitch in the fourth, a drive over the old 16-foot wall in left. Kevin Correia (11-11) gave up Scott Hairston's RBI single in the fourth and Murphy's tying single in the fifth before Wright hit an opposite-field drive to right for his 21st home run this season and a 6-3 lead.
Dickey was watching on TV in the clubhouse at the time.
"There were times he picked us up and really carried us as a team on his back," said Wright, happy to provide the hit that made the difference.
Dickey said after the seventh inning he was "pooped," but Collins sent him out for the eighth.
"I said, look, this ballpark is filled with energy today. Use it to your advantage," the manager recalled. "These people deserve to see you walk off the mound."
Responded Dickey: "Don't leave me hanging."
Jon Rauch, pitching on his 34th birthday, came in after a two-out walk, finished the eighth and allowed Alex Presley's two-run homer in the nervy ninth. Bobby Parnell retired Josh Harrison on a groundout and Jose Tabata on a flyout for his fifth save.
Dickey came back on the field for handshakes and soaked in the fans' love.
"I feel it in my face. I don't know if that makes any sense," Dickey said. "I want to get emotional. It's hard because we've had the type of season that we've had."
His family stayed back in Nashville, Tenn. — the kids are in school — but planned to meet him in Atlanta on Thursday night for the start of the Mets' final trip. He had some close friends at the game.
Through all the tough times, Dickey pictured this type of success in his mind.
"I never abandoned hope. I always held that out," he said. "My hope always outweighed my doubt, and that's what kind of kept me going."
NOTES: Pittsburgh, which led the NL Central at the All-Star break, lost for the 20th time in 26 games and dropped to 76-80. ... Snider gave the Pirates a memory with one of the best defensive plays of the season. He dug his cleats into the chain-link fence, hooked his left arm on top of the wall in front of the Mo's Zone seats, hoisted himself up and grabbed Baxter's drive in the webbing of the glove on his right hand well about the 8-foot wall. ... Andrew McCutchen bruised his left knee on a failed attempt at a diving catch on a soft fly to center in the seventh inning. He went 0 for 4, dropping to .332 and giving up the NL batting lead to San Francisco's Buster Posey, who went 2 for 4 and is hitting .333. ... The Mets drew 2,242,803 to Citi Field this year, down from 3.15 million in 2009, 2.56 million in 2010 and 2.35 million last year. This is the team's lowest home attendance since 2.19 million at Shea Stadium in 2003. ... Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez shaved off his mustache before the game in a charity fundraiser.