By JOSH SCHUR
(AP) -- With a wide gulf separating them from the top of the NL East, the New York Mets need R.A. Dickey pitching at the top of his game if they harbor any hopes of climbing back into contention.
Dickey's most recent outing was quite encouraging.
The Mets will hand the ball to the knuckleballer Friday in the opener of a three-game road series against the San Diego Padres.
Dickey (14-2, 2.83 ERA) was nearly unhittable for much of the season's first half and earned a spot on the All-Star team, but his knuckler fluttered back to earth as he went 1-1 with a 6.49 ERA in his first six appearances of July.
He returned to All-Star form Sunday at Arizona, allowing an unearned run and four hits while striking out eight through seven innings of work in a 5-1 victory.
Dickey pitched similarly well in a 2-0 home win over the Padres on May 27, striking out 10 and limiting San Diego to three hits in 7 1-3 innings.
"When you don't see it often, it's different," San Diego manager Bud Black told his team's official website after that contest. "You really can't simulate it or prepare for it in BP. He was throwing strikes and getting a lot of called strikes. He kept pumping the strike zone with the knuckleball. It was dancing."
Dickey has been dominant on the road all year, going 7-0 with a 1.75 ERA in his last eight starts away from home. His only road loss came on April 18 at Atlanta.
New York (52-54) was right in the mix for the NL East before dropping 15 of 18, but has gotten back on track by winning four of its last five games including three of four this week at West leader San Francisco. The slump took its toll, however, as the Mets now face a double-digit division deficit behind front-running Washington. It will take a similarly big comeback to capture a wild card.
"This is the same team that went on a massive skid and came in here and took three of four from a first-place team," outfielder Jason Bay said after Thursday's 9-1 rout of the Giants. "It is frustrating because it's there sometimes and it's not other times."
Bay drove in two runs Thursday, only his second multiple-RBI game this year.
San Diego (44-63) will attempt to cool off New York by giving the ball to Clayton Richard (7-11, 4.14).
The left-hander is 1-3 with a 5.91 ERA in his last five starts. He pitched effectively Sunday at Miami, allowing two runs over 5 1-3 innings, but the Padres went on to lose 5-4 in 10 innings.
Richard faced the Mets in New York in May 26, allowing four runs in six innings and getting charged with a 9-0 loss as Johan Santana pitched a four-hitter.
San Diego dropped three of four to NL-leading Cincinnati this week, including a 9-4 defeat in Thursday's finale.
Chase Headley was a bright spot in the series for the Padres, driving in six runs. He has hit safely in eight of his last nine games, batting .353 during that stretch.
The Padres dropped three of four to the Mets in May, scoring a total of one run in the final three games after tallying 11 to win the opener.
Updated August 2, 2012