Mets starters enter Subway on a roll

The New York Mets will get another crack at the New York Yankees this weekend -- and this time, they have the momentum on their side.

While the Yanks limp into Citi Field having lost two straight to the Atlanta Braves, the Mets are coming off three consecutive wins against the Baltimore Orioles.

That doesn't erase the sting of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees two weeks ago in the Bronx. But it does give the Mets an extra boost of confidence heading into Episode Two of the 2012 Subway Series.

"It's a great challenge," Mets manager Terry Collins said Wednesday about facing the Yankees. "With the guys they are throwing at us, our guys are gonna have to step up."

The pitching matchups are indeed fascinating. But for all the talk about the incredible run the Yankees' starting five have been on this month, it's the Mets' staff that boasts the better numbers heading into the weekend.

After Wednesday night's victory, the Mets' starting rotation has a cumulative ERA of 3.49. That's the third-best mark in the majors, behind only the Washington Nationals (3.05) and Los Angeles Dodgers (3.17).

The Yankees' rotation? It ranks 17th out of 30 major league clubs, at 4.14.

Mets starters gave up just two runs to the Orioles in 22 1/3 innings the past three days. And Baltimore entered the series among the top 10 in the big leagues in runs scored, and third in home runs.

Over the Mets' past 11 games, the starting pitchers have a combined ERA of 2.37, with 73 strikeouts and 20 walks in 76 innings.

"I like our rotation," Collins said. "I like our rotation a lot."

Much of the talk leading up to this three-game set is about the matchup Sunday night between R.A. Dickey (11-1, 2.00 ERA), the best pitcher in baseball so far this season, and CC Sabathia (9-3, 3.55 ERA), the five-time All-Star.

Don't expect to see many runs scored in the series finale.

The big question is, how will the starters on Friday and Saturday night fare? The opener pits Jonathon Niese (4-3, 3.82) versus Andy Pettitte (3-2, 2.77), while on Saturday you'll see Chris Young (1-1, 3.06) opposed by Ivan Nova (9-2, 4.32).

The Yanks appear to have the advantage on paper. Pitching in the pressure cooker of the Subway Series is old hat for the 40-year-old Pettitte. But the 25-year-old Niese has already made a couple of starts against the Yankees in his young career.

Niese took a loss against them last July 1 at Citi Field, but pitched credibly, giving up three runs in six innings. All three runs came in the first inning.

In the series finale two weekends ago, Niese allowed just two runs in seven innings, but got a no-decision in what ended up being a 5-4 Yankees victory.

"Jon's got a big task Friday night, and pitched good the last time he faced the Yankees," Collins said. "If he goes out and pitches his game, I think we're gonna have a good outing."

On Saturday, the Mets face the 25-year-old Nova, who has won each of his past five starts. But Young, 33, is a crafty veteran who has given up just six earned runs in his first three starts of the season since returning from shoulder surgery.

Plus, Young has only faced the Yankees twice in his career -- both times way back in 2005, when he was with the Texas Rangers. The Yanks have a tendency to struggle against pitchers they're not familiar with.

The ballpark will be a factor, too. There will be plenty of Yankees fans at Citi Field. But it's one of the toughest places in the majors to hit home runs -- even after the Mets moved in the fences and lowered the walls this past offseason. Only six stadiums have been less homer-friendly than Citi Field so far this year.

The Yankees, meanwhile, rely on home runs more than any other team -- with an MLB-leading 105, and scoring 51.1 percent of their runs via the long ball, also tops in the big leagues.

And the Mets are 22-15 at Citi Field this season -- the second-most home wins in the majors, behind only the Dodgers (24).

All in all, it makes for a highly intriguing three days in Queens. And with the Yankees (41-27) in first place in the AL East, and the Mets (38-32) a surprising second place in the NL East -- well, you couldn't ask for much better than that.

The Mets sound highly motivated to gain some revenge on their crosstown rivals. But their biggest motivation, at least when it comes to the starting pitchers, may be internal.

Niese, Young and Dillon Gee are trying to live up to the outstanding performances by Dickey and Johan Santana over the first two-plus months of the season.

"They set the tone, and it makes me want to go out there and do the same thing," Gee said after allowing two runs in 7 1/3 innings against Baltimore on Wednesday. "You see what they do, and you wanna do the same thing. And keep the streak going, and not let anybody down."

"I don't think it puts pressure on 'em, I think it's competition," said Collins. "You want to step up and do the same thing."

"The starting pitching on this team is very credible," the skipper added. "I think our guys have taken that competition and run with it, and done a good job."

The next test comes Friday night at 7:10 p.m.