The greater a talent, the more it longs for a stage on which to perform. And the more it rises to those occasions that flatter it most.

In situations where the rest of us feel fear, the most gifted become calm and silently happy. As the house lights dim, the concert pianist loses his butterflies, just when we would discover them. As the Shea Stadium crowd rises in a mounting ovation during the national anthem, Dwight Gooden finds his control, rather than loses it.

Don't ask Gooden to explain what he does. Just watch with delight as the peace of battle settles over him. At least for the moment, right now at 21, with every goal in front of him and the little world of baseball holding its breath, Gooden is a child at blissful play.

He wants to pitch no-hitters and perfect games. Win pennants and World Series. Win 30 games and break Bob Gibson's ERA record of 1.12. He wants to be the best hitting and fielding pitcher of his time and the greatest hurler who ever lived.

He wants to get better. Every day.

Nothing he has accomplished yet impresses him. Not the all-time record of 11.39 strikeouts per nine innings as a rookie in 1984. Not the 24-4 record last season, nor the 1.53 ERA -- the second lowest in 60 years. Not his 37-5 mark since August of his rookie year. Not even his current streak of 23-1 since late last May (ERA: 1.32). Can a human allow less than a run a game?

"I only think about those things when you say them to me. Otherwise, it just doesn't seem to sink in."

Even as old heads such as Gibson say, "I assume he can't get any better," he gets better. Steadily.

Tuesday night, for the first time this year, the chips were stacked a mite higher. Back from a 9-1 road trip, the Mets had New York doing handstands. Facing the first-in-the-West Astros, facing Bob Knepper, the hottest pitcher in the league (except himself), and coming off a win that for some reason displeased him, Gooden had his attention focused. Put Fernando Valenzuela, Nolan Ryan, John Tudor or Rick Sutcliffe on the mound against him, and he's even money to pitch a shutout.

It surprised no one -- barely even merited comment from his teammates -- that he pitched a two-hit shutout that easily could have been a no-hitter. If Rafael Santana had fielded a chop over the mound in the fifth inning, instead of missing it completely, Gooden would have been working toward a perfect game.

"I was aware of it," Gooden said.

"I think he applies a standard of expectation to himself that is so much higher than what we expect of him that we don't ever realize it," says Manager Davey Johnson.

Yet Gooden does it with such nonchalance, such good humor, such unhurried certainty that all good baseball things are simply waiting for him, that he has a mesmerizing charm.

For instance, Gooden didn't just want to outpitch Knepper, he wanted to be the hitter to beat him, too.

In his second at-bat, Gooden, a natural left-handed hitter who has been begged to bat righty to protect his prize right arm from pitched balls, clobbered a Knepper fastball through the drizzle and wind toward the left field bullpen.

Gooden, owner of one major league home run, stood at the plate, walked a few steps and admired the towering fly. "I slowed down and wanted to watch it myself," he said sheepishly afterward.

When the ball was caught at the wall, did Gooden kick the dirt? "He turned to the dugout," said Johnson, "and he was grinning from ear to ear."

"He takes pride in everything, especially his hitting," says pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "Early in the season, we heard that a pitcher had hit a homer in another game. Nobody even noticed except Dwight. He muttered, 'Oh, shoot. I wanted to be the first pitcher in the league to hit one out.'

"None of this is happening by accident. He has enormous talent, but so have some others over the years. He works at it."

In his career, Gooden has allowed only three runs in the ninth inning -- only one since midway through his rookie year. "Someday, he's going to give up a hit late in a game to lose, though I understand he never has -- not at any level," said Stottlemyre. "If that happens, I pity the next team he faces . . . "

What did Gooden do after his long drive was caught? Next time up, in a 1-0 game, he battled to a 3-2 count with men on second and third, then hit a triple off the right field fence to break open the game. He glided swiftly around the bases, reaching third standing -- still full of breath and joy.

"I thought of squeeze bunting with him," said Johnson, "but I said, 'Nah, he's going to get a base hit.' Besides, he'd never forgive me."

That, of course, is backward. Gooden is no prima donna. "I was thinking that was a good spot for a squeeze," he volunteered.

"If he weren't a pitcher," said Johnson, "he'd probably be a switch-hitting right fielder with a cannon."

"What do you do now?" Gooden was asked, as usual after he's expected to be amazing, then surpasses even that.

"Keep working hard," he said.

Every detail of the sport fascinates him the way it might a 35-year-old veteran. Gooden found the pregame rain delay interesting, because "I had more time to work on my curve in the bullpen and I had control of it about two innings earlier than usual."

Pitching in the rain gave him a chance to work on finding how much resin to put on his hand for a good grip. Instead of complaining, he thought about how little fun it must be for hitters to see him in a mist.

"By the seventh because of the delay , I was losing some of my stuff, so I started going for locations." Most pitchers learn to identify that moment and compensate for it around age 30, if ever.

Tuesday's game had only one moment that would have interested John McGraw up in heaven. In the ninth, a walk, a hit and a dropped pop loaded the bases with cleanup man Glenn Davis due. With nobody warm, Gooden suddenly faced the tying run while standing on a slick mound after 115 pitches.

Gooden started a double play to end the game. But that barely concerned him. He was upset that his soft lob after fielding the ball almost fooled Gary Carter into pulling his foot off the plate. Few noticed. Gooden couldn't get it off his mind. He came back to the subject three times, saying:

"I've got to remember that."