It's almost assured that Dwight Gooden will be the pitching star of any game in which he starts, but it was Gooden's performance at the plate today that drew the attention of the 49,931 fans at Shea Stadium.

In addition to the four hits and one unearned run he allowed in eight innings, Gooden (22-4) went three for four, including a three-run home run, and had four RBI in the New York Mets' 12-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"He's something, ain't he?" said Mets Manager Dave Johnson, whose team kept within two games of St. Louis' lead in the National League East.

"Definitely the biggest thrill of the season," Gooden said. "I'd take the home run over a no-hitter," which he has yet to pitch. "I was real excited. I felt like I was dreaming."

With 20 hits, he now has broken Tom Seaver's Mets record of 18 hits by a pitcher in a season.

Gooden, a natural left-handed hitter, hits from the right side because Johnson doesn't want him to risk injuring his precious right arm.

Gooden's string of 31 scoreless innings was ended in the first when center fielder Mookie Wilson dropped a short fly ball by Joe Orsulak, who eventually scored the Pirates' run. The Cardinals' John Tudor also had 31 shutout innings, most in the league this season.

After striking out Denny Gonzalez to end the inning, Gooden walked from the mound with a perturbed look.

The expression was in marked contrast to the broad smile he wore as he went back to the dugout after batting in the first, the ninth of 10 batters in the inning for New York.

His teammates already had scored four runs off Rick Rhoden (6-14) when Gooden stepped in with two out and two on. Rhoden's first pitch was a curve that hung over the middle of the plate like a pinata, and Gooden hit it 370 feet for his first major league home run.

"Ron Gardenhire said, 'Don't be afraid to smile,' " said Gooden, who did, ear to ear.

"We know how important his hitting is to him," Keith Hernandez said. "We've been calling him a singles hitter for the last two years. Now that he's got his home run, we'll never see him without a bat in his hand, as if we don't now."

The inning following a high-scoring inning is often a key to the outcome of the game. If the team that scored big can shut down the opposition, it can be demoralizing.

Consider the Pirates demoralized. Although Gooden gave up a hit to Larry McWilliams (who had replaced Rhoden) in the second, he got Orsulak to line out to end the inning. He gave up a hit to R.J. Reynolds in the fifth and one to Orsulak in the eighth. That was it.

Back at the plate, after lining out to Gonzalez at third in the third, Gooden singled home Johnson in the fifth, his fourth RBI of the day, to make it 7-1. In the seventh, after Rafael Santana singled, Gooden went with Ray Krawczyk's low outside pitch to right field. Santana scored on Wally Backman's single and Gooden scored on Hernandez's single to make it 10-1.

With two out in the eighth, Johnson tripled to right and scored on a single by Santana, who would later score to make it 12-1. Rusty Staub pinch hit for Gooden, a move that brought more than a few boos from the fans. But if they were booing the move and not Staub, they were cheering for him when he singled to right. It was Staub's 100th career pinch hit; he is the 10th major leaguer to reach that level.

On being lifted despite having seven hits in his last 13 times up, Gooden said with a smile, "I was glad to protect my average."

It's .230.