NEW YORK -- The last time the Mets opened play against the Phillies, they were in first place. Feeling good, too. Winners of seven straight, the Mets were preparing to throw their best three starters -- Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese -- against their rivals at Citizens Bank Park.

Since that time, they have sunk about as low as any team can at this early juncture of the season. The Mets lost Niese and John Maine from the rotation due to injury, and Oliver Perez due to poor performance. They faced constant scrutiny regarding manager Jerry Manuel's job status. And they dropped like a stone from first place to last, although with the logjam that is the National League East, they're a surmountable five games behind first-place Philadelphia.

Yet almost inexplicably, they're feeling good again -- real good. And the Phillies await once again.

"It's not going to get any easier," outfielder Jason Bay said after his Mets took two of three from the Yankees. "But it gives us a good little momentum-builder."

"Now we have a tough series coming up," Santana said. "We've just got to continue playing and use this momentum."

Momentum, of the upward-trending variety, is something altogether unfamiliar to this group of Mets. After a better-than-expected start, which climaxed just before they played the Phillies at the beginning of May, the Mets began tumbling downward. They didn't stop until taking two of three from the Yankees last weekend.

In the three weeks since the Mets last saw the Phillies, they have endured a multitude of injuries, an unannounced visit from an unhappy owner and a notion that maybe all those preseason predictions may have been accurate. Maybe this team doesn't have what it takes to compete in the NL East.

But ask the Mets, and they'll tell you they do.

They have a lineup that, with Bay and Jose Reyes finally starting to hit, no longer looks and feels like something unworthy of the NL competition. They have a bullpen that is once again healthy. And they have a rotation that -- well, that remains a sizeable question mark.

"We've got to pitch," second baseman Alex Cora said. "Everything starts with pitching with this team."

Unlike earlier this month, when the Mets threw Santana, Pelfrey and Niese at the Phillies, this time they will proceed with Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi. It's hardly the same. But the Mets have gained a modicum of confidence in a patchwork pitching staff that includes a 35-year-old Japanese rookie with one big league start, and a 35-year-old knuckleballer who only recently began embracing the pitch.

"This is just my fifth year throwing it," Dickey said of his knuckleball. "I really feel like I'm about 26 in knuckleball years. Hopefully we've got five or six good ones left."

Right now, the Mets will take five or six good starts from Dickey, who is set to start Tuesday's series opener at Citi Field. For all their optimism, two wins in three games against the Yankees won't cure this team. Remember, the Mets are still in last place. They still have major questions surrounding their lineup and major issues -- despite the recent successes of Dickey and Takahashi -- in their rotation.

But let them enjoy this. After this series, the Mets won't see the Phillies again until the first weekend in August, at which point they will already be what they're going to become. There's a decent chance they'll be low down in the standings, without much hope of climbing back up.

Sunday night, though, the Mets weren't buying it. With rap music blasting, the clubhouse was a cheerful place. An optimistic place. Once again, the Phillies are scuffling and the Mets are feeling good.

They're looking to hold onto that feeling for as long as they possibly can.