Cain, Dickey: Who starts for NL?

Matt Cain should start the All-Star Game. R.A. Dickey deserves the honor, too. And if National League manager Tony La Russa hoped Thursday would simplify his hairsplitting decision, he must have been disappointed.

The night felt like a gimmick concocted by the baseball gods: Cain and Dickey made their 17th starts of the season at the same exact time, a mere 240 miles apart on the East Coast. They departed their games within minutes of one another, around 9:15 p.m. local time.

Thanks to a throwback commemoration at Nationals Park, both were pitching for “New York.” Cain and his San Francisco teammates wore the interlocking “NY” in honor of the 1924 World Series between the Giants and Washington Senators, while Dickey took the mound in his customary Mets home threads against Philadelphia at Citi Field. (And since we can’t get enough of these parallels, it’s my duty to inform you that both games ended in 6-5 walk-off wins.)

Cain delivered a quality start — 6 2/3 innings, three earned runs — before the Giants’ bullpen buckled. Dickey had one of his poorer outings this season (seven innings, five earned runs, season-high 11 hits) before his teammates rallied against Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon.

So with the first half over for both right-handers, here’s where they stand:

Cain: 9-3, 2.62, 120 1/3 innings, 24 walks, 118 strikeouts, 0.96 WHIP, two shutouts, one perfect game.

Dickey: 12-1, 2.40 ERA, 120 innings, 26 walks, 123 strikeouts, 0.93 WHIP, two shutouts, back-to-back one-hitters.

Yes, Cain recorded exactly one more out than Dickey over the past three months.

Good luck, Tony. The decision is due Monday, in advance of Tuesday’s All-Star Game (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET).

If La Russa asks my opinion — and he won’t — I will recommend that he start Cain. There are two reasons for that: Dickey’s midgame arrival could have a spellbinding effect on the American League hitters; and Cain has put together a better body of work over his career, with relatively little fanfare (at least, until the perfect game).

“I think Matty should start the game, I really do,” said Mark DeRosa, the Washington Nationals veteran and former teammate of both Cain and Dickey. “That’s not a knock on R.A. What a great story he’s been, and an even better human being.

“But Matty has kind of flown under the radar as one of the great pitchers for a long time. He’s got a World Series (ring). He pitched 20-some scoreless innings in the postseason. He threw a perfect game. He’s pretty much done everything he’s needed to do to be given that ball.”

Dickey is the sentimental favorite. I understand that. His story of personal hardship and professional adaptation — the knuckleball saved his career — has inspired millions across the country who care little about the fortunes of the New York Mets. At 37, he’s a full decade older than Cain. This is his first All-Star appearance. It may be his last.

“I think it should be (based on) that year — it is the All-Star Game for that year,” said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, an All-Star three years ago. “If you based it on a career, (Justin) Verlander should start every year for the past five years.

“The All-Star Game is meant to honor guys that are having great first halves of that year. The guy with the best numbers should start. It’s tough to pick, but what Dickey’s done has been pretty unbelievable. His numbers are probably the best, so I guess that would be the guy you would pick.”

But there are practical matters at play, and Tony the Tactician is well aware of them.

Chief among them: Buster Posey, the NL starting catcher, told me this week that he’s never caught a knuckleballer. As in, ever. Posey said he will need to obtain an extra-large catcher’s mitt, if La Russa intends for him to work with Dickey. (Note to Kansas City sporting goods suppliers: stock up.)

“I’m not sure if there’s anybody that can simulate his,” Posey said, when asked if he would play catch with any stand-in knuckleballers over the next few days. “If that is who starts, then I’ll get with him when I get there.”

Posey has, on the other hand, caught Cain many times. In fact, he was behind the plate Thursday night. The two have been teammates in San Francisco for the past three years. For a manager who understands the importance of continuity within a battery, Cain appears to be the most sensible choice.

Strictly by the numbers, Dickey has the slightly better 2012 résumé. But the difference is negligible, and the All-Star Game should be about more than a player’s half-season stats. La Russa is managing to win. Cain will give him the best chance.

“That’s Tony’s call,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who tabbed Roy Halladay when he led the NL All-Stars last year. “(Cain’s) had a great half. I’ll say that. Dickey’s had a tremendous half, as (have) some other pitchers. That’s in Tony’s hands. We’d like to see him start, being biased here. What a great job he’s done — and again today. We just couldn’t hold it for him.”

Two Washington pitchers — Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg — have been mentioned as candidates to start, but this feels like a two-man runoff. Just in case, though, DeRosa made one request in light of Strasburg’s mythical innings limit for the season. “Because of the innings,” DeRosa said, smiling, “I don’t want Stras even pitching.”