- Adam Rubin, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The motivation behind skipping fifth starter Chris Capuano until the season's eighth game had nothing to do with maximizing the number of starts for the New York Mets' top four members of the rotation, pitching coach Dan Warthen said.
Nor, Warthen added, was it motivated by getting Mike Pelfrey off the track of facing other teams' No. 1 starters, such as would have been the case with Pelfrey facing Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay on Thursday had there been a straight a five-man rotation.
Nor was it motivated by keeping an extra left-hander in the bullpen in Capuano for the season-opening road trip.
The reason: By using a four-man rotation for the opening week, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey drew Game Nos. 3 and 7. And that meant Dickey would be the starter for Friday's home opener against the Washington Nationals, a distinction Warthen and fellow Mets brass wanted to bestow.
"That's it," Warthen said of the simple logic.
Dickey -- who will oppose Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann at Citi Field, after Ralph Kiner throws out Friday's ceremonial first pitch -- is appreciative.
"I really consider it a privilege," said Dickey, who limited the Florida Marlins to an unearned run in six innings Sunday as the Mets routed Javier Vazquez and won the rubber game in Miami. "I imagine in some ways it's a reward for last season, which I'm incredibly grateful for. It should be a special day for me."
Dickey, of course, did not even pitch at the major league level for the Mets for the full season last year. After dominating in Triple-A Buffalo's rotation, including retiring 27 straight batters in one International League game after surrendering a leadoff hit, Dickey made his Mets debut May 19 against the Nationals in Washington.
That day, he allowed only two runs in six innings but received a no-decision in a 5-3 loss. He went on to win his next six starts, becoming the first pitcher in franchise history to go 6-0 in his first seven starts with the organization. Dickey bonded with fans, who appreciated his storyline as a late bloomer with a quirky pitch as well as his production. Dickey finished the season with a 1.99 home ERA, fourth-best in the National League.
"I do appreciate it," Dickey said about the warmth from Mets fans. "I also consider it when thinking about pitching the home opener. I think one of the reasons is because of that bond. I really feel like I relate well with the New York Mets fan base. I think the management in some ways is maybe using it as a gift to the fans, you know? Because there is a bond there."
Jerry Manuel, Terry Collins' predecessor as Mets manager, sensed that bond too. So instead of allowing Dickey's season to end with a start in Game No. 158 of the season -- in a game in which Chris Carter pinch-hit for Dickey in the bottom of the seventh and Dickey did not get a final recognition from the crowd -- Manuel gave Dickey an encore.
Manuel had Dickey pitch in relief in the second-to-last game of the season.
Manuel actually wanted to use the knuckleballer in relief the last day of the season, too, so that Dickey could get one more ovation from the crowd. Dickey, poised to get the first big payday of his career, wisely did not want to jeopardize his health. (He subsequently signed a two-year, $7.8 million deal.)
Reminded of Manuel's intention to get him more adulation from the Flushing faithful on last season's final day, the usually eloquent Dickey clammed up. He laughed and said: "Oh gosh. No comment."
6mRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com