Whether he wanted it or not, Jon Niese has been thrust into the role of Met ace. That’s what happens when you get the nod as the Opening Day starter and then become the stopper after the team loses two in a row.
Sure, it was happenstance that Niese took the mound under those circumstances against the Marlins at Citi Field on Saturday afternoon. He was simply starting on his normal four days’ rest. But as natural as it was for him to take the mound, it seems just as natural for him to assume the mantle as the leader of a young rotation that is already minus its nominal ace, Johan Santana, and missing another starter, Shaun Marcum.
“When your No. 1 pitcher walks out there your team feels like it has a chance to win. That’s what Jon Niese brings to us,” Terry Collins said. “We felt today he was going to give us an outing that was going to give us a chance and he did that. That’s the mentality that he has.”
Niese, who has gone six innings or more in 22 consecutive starts, gave the Mets just what they needed, paving the way for a 7-3 victory over the Marlins that ended that two-game skid.
Niese went six innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on eight hits, but walked away with a no-decision (reliever Brandon Lyon got the win). Niese got the full Santana treatment of pitching well and getting nothing in return; after he left the game, the Mets exploded for six runs. But he had done his job as stopper.
Santana has left a vacuum that must be filled if the Mets are to develop the early confidence needed for the rotation to thrive. Though he has been thrust to the forefront, Niese believes it will be a collective effort.
“It’s unfortunate what happened with Johan,” he said. “But our starting five realize what it takes to keep the team in a game. Usually they don’t let the nerves get to them. They pound the zone and give us good, quality innings.”
The early signs are that the role of ace, at least for this season as the Mets await the emergence of Matt Harvey and the arrival of Zack Wheeler, seems to fit Niese well. He didn’t blink when Collins told him in spring training that he would be the Opening Day starter in place of Santana. Collins said Niese was raring to go after he received the news.
And he didn’t disappoint as he pitched 6.2 innings and allowed two runs on four hits as the Mets defeated the Padres, 11-2, on Monday. It was an outing that has seemed to inspire the rest of the rotation. The Mets starters have combined for a 1.41 ERA (five earned runs in 32 innings) over the first five games.
Niese credits John Buck, the 32-year-old veteran catcher who arrived in a trade with Toronto in the offseason, with managing the starters.
“He never takes a pitch off,” Niese said. “He reads hitters well. He reads swings well. He can read their approach. We always have a good plan going in the game. We just have to execute.’”
Buck’s measured approach has helped Niese settle into the role that he has inherited. And Niese has the kind of disposition that makes him suited for the No. 1 spot. Last season, when Santana couldn’t start at the beginning of the season, Collins tabbed Mike Pelfrey as the Opening Day starter and wanted him to grab the reins of the rotation. Pelfrey wilted before being sidelined due to Tommy John surgery early in the season.
Niese isn’t allowing that kind of pressure to interfere with what he has to do on the mound.
“I don’t look into all the other stuff outside the game,” Niese said. “I prepare for each game the same. We have that plan for each and every team. We don’t look at it as we lost two games in a row and we need a win here. I don’t like that added pressure. Just treat it as a normal start.”
Collins can see the maturity in the 26-year-old lefty.
“I just think he’s growing into the pitcher that everybody thought he was going to be,” the manager said. “We all know if he wants to he can go 92-93 (mph). He’s pitching it 91, 90, 89, because he’s locating and trying to get the ball to move around the strike zone. I think he’s really becoming a real good pitcher.”
Whether Niese can grab hold of the opportunity in front of him remains to be seen. Whether he likes being called it or not, Niese is the ace by default. Now the Mets need him to keep pitching like it.
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