By Brett Huston

STATS Senior Writer


(AP) — Starting pitching has become the New York Mets’ biggest strength in recent weeks. It’s becoming more apparent by the day that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ punchless, injury-plagued lineup is their biggest weakness.

R.A. Dickey looks to deliver the Mets’ eighth straight quality start Saturday night against the Pirates, who haven’t had an extra-base hit in consecutive losses since reaching .500.

New York’s starters were on a roll heading into PNC Park on Friday, going 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA during their last six outings, and Dillon Gee kept that string of success going in the opener of this four-game set.

The rookie allowed eight singles over eight innings, holding Pittsburgh scoreless after the first as the Mets (31-32) cruised to an 8-1 victory.

“We’re just going to mark it down as a bad day for all of us,” second baseman Neil Walker said.

The Pirates (30-32) haven’t had anything more than a single since Wednesday against Arizona, the same day catcher Chris Snyder went down with a herniated disk – he’s one of the club’s nine players on the disabled list – that could sideline him for the rest of the season.

With Ryan Doumit, Pittsburgh’s other catcher, out until at least late July, manager Clint Hurdle’s club has yet another glaring hole in a lineup that’s already missing third baseman Pedro Alvarez and continually juggling right fielders.

Dusty Brown and Wyatt Toregas, the Pirates’ current catchers, are a combined 15 for 86 (.174) in their careers.

Those struggles should be great news for Dickey (3-6, 4.04 ERA), who seems to be getting himself turned around after going 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA in his first nine starts.

The knuckleballer, who partially tore the plantar fascia in his right foot May 26 in Chicago, improved to 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in his last four outings after holding Atlanta to a run over eight innings in Sunday’s 6-4 victory.

“Here’s a guy whose foot is killing him, and he’s so focused on doing all the things right that his foot doesn’t bother him, and yet his concentration is so much better,” manager Terry Collins told the Mets’ official website. “The knuckleball was just working.”

It certainly fooled the Pirates when he struck out a career-high 10 on May 31, but Pittsburgh also managed to score three eighth-inning runs off Dickey en route to a 5-1 win.

Dickey will again match up with his mound opponent from that night, James McDonald (3-4, 4.97), who held the Mets to a run over six innings. The right-hander was far from sharp Sunday against Philadelphia, walking five and allowing three runs over four innings in a 7-3 defeat.

“I lost command, really,” McDonald told the Pirates’ official website. “Didn’t have a good feel, got behind hitters, walked guys. The walks really killed me.”

McDonald is 0-1 with a 2.84 ERA in three starts versus New York since arriving in Pittsburgh last July. The Pirates have totaled one run in the 19 innings McDonald’s been on the hill against the Mets.

McDonald and Pittsburgh’s fans will get their first look at Jason Bay since the team traded PNC Park’s all-time leader in homers (61) and RBIs (240) to Boston in 2008. Bay, in the midst of an 0-for-23 slump, will be back in the Mets lineup after two days on the bench.

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