Apr 06

Mets Wrap: Niese, Bullpen Sharp In Win Over Miami

Opening Day was impressive, but today might have been the Mets’ most complete victory in this young season. Jon Niese gave the Mets their fifth straight strong start, the offense came from behind twice and the often-criticized bullpen shut the door on the Miami Marlins in a 7-3 victory in a sparsely crowded Citi Field.

NIESE: Another quality start. (AP)

      NIESE: Another quality start. (AP)

That answers the question: If the Mets win in an empty ballpark does it still count?

It does, and the Mets, after losing two straight, are now back over .500, and will try to win their second straight series tomorrow.

ON THE MOUND: Niese gave up two runs in six innings for his second quality start. He wasn’t as sharp as in the opener as he gave up eight hits and two walks. He threw 100 pitches again, but did not give the Mets the length he wanted. … The bullpen gave up one run in three innings (credited to Scott Atchison). … Bobby Parnell earned the Mets’ first save of the season.

AT THE PLATE:  John Buck drove in four runs on a double and two sacrifice flies. … David Wright and Ike Davis broke out of slumps, getting three and two hits, respectively. … Daniel Murphy tripled in what proved to be the game-winning run in the seventh. … Collin Cowgill, who did not start, hit his second homer of the season. That should return him to the lineup tomorrow.

IN THE FIELD: Ruben Tejada committed his fourth error in five games (he should have five). … Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis started in right and center, respectively. … Tejada made a sparkling play on a deflected ball to end the game.

ON DECK: The Mets conclude this series with the Marlins Sunday, with RHP Jose Fernandez going against LHP Aaron Laffey, at 1:10 p.m., SNY/WFAN.

Apr 06

Lineup Changes For Mets Against Marlins

Terry Collins put together an interesting lineup for this afternoon’s game against Miami Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco.

Collins promised to get starts for outfielders Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis and both are starting today, with Marlon Byrd and Collin Cowgill sitting. It the second straight game in which Cowgill is on the bench.

Somewhat surprising is John Buck  again behind the plate. The reasoning is he’s probably a better fit with Jon Niese. Anthony Recker could start Sunday.

Here’s the lineup:

Mike Baxter, RF: Gets his first start of the season, and in right field as expected. However, I didn’t expect to see him leading off.

Daniel Murphy, 2B: Hit a three-run homer yesterday. Still hitting second, and is doing it behind his third different leadoff hitter. With his patience, he’ll stay here for a while. Last night was his first homer; he didn’t get his first last year until June 27.

David Wright, 3B: Still looking for his first homer. Hitting .397 with six career homers and 17 RBI against Miami starter Ricky Nolasco.

Ike Davis, 1B: Is off to a miserable start and takes a 1-for-16 slide into the game. Overall is hitting .067 with one homer and two RBI. Is also hitting a dismal .167 (1-7) with runners in scoring position.

John Buck, C: Mets hottest hitter at .412, two homers and five RBI. Moved up to fifth to hit between strikeout prone Davis and Lucas Duda. For the second time this week is catching in a day game after a night game.

Lucas Duda, LF: Showed last night he’s still a weakness with the glove. He needs to hit more to compensate. Is batting .273 with one homer and three RBI. A positive so far is he’s working the count and taking some walks.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis, CF: Is getting his first start of the season. That he’s not leading off indicates Mets remain wary of his high strikeout totals and low on-base percentage. To get in the starting lineup he needs to get on base.

Ruben Tejada, SS: Has three errors in four games, and should have been charged with another last night when he dropped a ball trying to make a tag on a steal attempt. Throwing error last night opened door for Marlins’ five-run seventh inning. Is hitting better than his fielding, but is only at .231.

Jon Niese, LHP: In ten career starts against the Marlins, is 2-5 with a 4.60 ERA. Is coming off a strong Opening Day performance against San Diego.

Apr 06

Niese Must Grasp Role As No. 1 Starter

By definition, Jon Niese is correct, he is not a No. 1 pitcher, an ace if you will. However, in relation to his status on the Mets, he is the man.

There is no denying Niese’s importance, but his designation of being the leader of the staff should be emphasized more today against Miami than in the status of an Opening Day starter. After two victories to open the season, the Mets have dropped two in a row, and have not looked good in the process.

NIESE: Announcing his presence with authority.

NIESE: Announcing his presence with authority.

Today, the Mets need Niese to stop the losing. That’s the primary goal of a stopper. That’s what staff leaders do.

“As far as leading the staff, I really don’t want to fulfill that role,’’ Niese said. “Everybody, all the guys in the rotation, have something different to offer.

“So I’m willing to learn from them, and I’m sure they’re willing to learn from me. We all have a job to do. Each one of us has a different way of going about it.’’

I can’t buy for a second Niese doesn’t want that role or responsibility. He’s a competitor; you see that every time he pitches. Saying that gives the perception of him willing to be complacent with what he’s achieved, and his 13 career-high victories in not where he wants to peak.

Let’s give Niese the benefit of doubt and say it’s modesty or a reflection of his demeanor. He’s quiet, he’s modest, there doesn’t appear to be a brash bone in his body. But, he’s not a pushover on the mound who easily caves in to the hitter.

Niese wants that role, and manager Terry Collins indicated as much when he told him he would be the Opening Day starter almost a month ago.

“[Niese] said, `All right!’ That means he wanted it bad,’’ Collins recalled. “He got himself ready for it, for sure. He pitched a great game.’’

Niese held San Diego to two runs on four hits and two walks in 6.2 innings. He also had two hits himself.

“I’m not going to lie,’’ Niese said. “The adrenaline was pumping.’’

Catcher John Buck said Niese was easy to catch as everything fell into place for him.

“He had a good two-seamer going. His cutter in was working well for him,’’ Buck said. “So he was spreading the plate really well. And then that curveball, obviously, is a weapon to have with two strikes.’’

No. 1 starters don’t want to leave games. They want to start what they finish. Niese has gone the distance, but knows there have been too many times when he exits with the game still in the balance. That has to stop this year, says Niese, in acknowledging how he must continue to grow.

“I think last year was kind of a year where I kind of hit that sixth inning and had 95 pitches and they kind of shut me down,’’ said Niese, who pleaded for an extra inning and finished with 101. “I think this year I want to be that guy who goes back out and finishes my starts.’’

That won’t happen if Niese hits 100 in the seventh. He needs to be more efficient with his pitches. Too often he’ll work deep into the count, throwing four or five pitches to a hitter.

One less pitch to a hitter could mean two more innings. And, in their minds, staff leaders can’t throw enough innings.

Apr 05

Zack Wheeler Roughed Up In Vegas Debut

For those thinking Zack Wheeler will be the answer to the gaping hole in the Mets’ rotation, think again. He’s at Triple-A Las Vegas for a reason, and that being he’s not ready. Injuries to Johan Santana and Shaun Marcum will be handled without compromising Wheeler’s development.

WHEELER: Rocked last night.

WHEELER: Rocked last night.

Jeremy Hefner tonight against Miami and Aaron Laffey Sunday is what it is going to be. If they get through those starts intact, then they’ll get another.

“I don’t know what they have planned for me,’’ Wheeler told me in spring training when asked if there was a timetable for his promotion. “All I know is I have to keep working and improving.’’

Wheeler identified his growth obstacles as control and command of his secondary pitches, notably his change-up. He’s not able to consistently throw it for strikes, especially when behind in the count and hitters are sitting on a fastball.

“It’s a feel pitch,’’ Wheeler said. “It’s the toughest pitch for me to command. It takes a lot of work.’’

Wheeler, who missed time this spring with a strained oblique muscle, has reported no discomfort since he was cleared to pitch, but nonetheless hasn’t been sharp He said there’s nothing wrong physically, but remains in a mechanical funk.

In his debut last night for Las Vegas, Wheeler didn’t get a decision, but there was no hiding the difficulty in his start, as he labored through 86 pitches in 3.1 innings, giving up a run on three hits, but with three walks and a wild pitch. For the 86 pitches Wheeler threw, he should have worked into the sixth or seventh innings at least. A no-decision with 86 pitches is a wasted start.

General manager Sandy Alderson repeatedly said this spring the Mets won’t rush Wheeler. Part of sending him down for the first six weeks of the season is to give the Mets another year of control to keep him off the free-agent market for another year and delay arbitration.

“He’s not ready,’’ Alderson said. “We’re not going to bring somebody up where he would be in position to fail.’’

Wheeler had spectacular moments this spring when he overpowered hitters and impressed with his composure, but it was early so not much can be drawn from that other than optimism.

Last night is no indication of what kind of year, let alone career, is in store for Wheeler. But, the lack of command underscored he isn’t ready to dominate major league hitters. For all the talk Wheeler might have better stuff than Matt Harvey, that’s not the issue. That’s only speculation that doesn’t help either pitcher.

So, those dreaming of a Harvey, Wheeler and Jon Niese trio, keep dreaming. It’s not coming any time soon.

NOTE: I’ll be back later this afternoon with posts on Hefner/Buck working together tonight; the continuation of the 73 series; an analysis of the lineup; and a game wrap. Please drop in throughout the day. Thanks.

Apr 04

Dillon Gee’s Comeback One Of The Good Stories

The cold didn’t bother Matt Harvey last night, but the Mets will pay close attention this afternoon to Dillon Gee if the temperatures drop during his start against the San Diego Padres.

In the quest of rooting for good stories, Gee is up there in his attempt to come back from emergency surgery to repair a blocked artery in his shoulder that caused his right hand to go numb. Simply, you can’t throw if you can’t feel the ball.

GEE: Takes a big step today.

GEE: Takes a big step today.

“I’ve had no setbacks, zero,’’ said Gee during spring training, where the temperatures were thirty degrees higher than the mid-40s expected today in New York, where the Mets go for a sweep of their season-opening three-game series.

Gee will throw his first major league pitch since undergoing surgery at last year’s All-Star break. He had many of his fears quelled because he was able to throw last September.

“I didn’t want to spend the off-season wondering if I could throw again,” Gee said. “It took a lot off my mind.”

The feeling returned to Gee’s hand, but today will be the coolest weather in which he’s had to pitch. In preparation, Gee is on nitroglycerin tablets to expand the blood vessels and maintain circulation. Command will be the issue if the cold makes it difficult for him to grip the ball.

“I think I’ll be fine,’’ Gee said. “It hasn’t been an issue.’’

Gee will attempt to give the Mets their third straight strong starting effort, following Jon Niese in the opener and Harvey’s 10-strikeout performance last night.

His start is part of the progression that began when he was drafted in the 21st round of the 2007 draft. His first work was out of the bullpen, but by the end of his first season with Single-A Brooklyn he was starting and had a 3-1 record with a 2.28 ERA. Gee moved up to Double-A in 2008 and Triple-A in 2009, but that year ended not with a September call-up by the Mets, but with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Gee returned strong in 2010 and was brought up by the Mets to make his debut, Sept. 7, and was brilliant in taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He eventually gave up a run on two hits. Gee stayed in the rotation and finished 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in five starts. That first impression wasn’t a fluke as he won his first seven decisions in 2011, and finished at 13-6 with a 4.43 ERA and firmly entrenched in the rotation.

Gee doesn’t have the physical make-up of Harvey or Zack Wheeler, but the Mets like his poise and resiliency. He doesn’t get rattled when things go wrong, as they did in 2012 when he was hit hard and often to have a 5.65 ERA in his first seven starts.

The clot in his shoulder didn’t appear to be the cause of his problems as he rebounded with nine-strikeout games against San Diego and Baltimore and improved to 6-7 at the break. He was supposed to open the second half against Atlanta, but it never happened because he complained of numbness in his arm.

Then came the wonder if he’d ever pitch again. Now there’s no pain, no numbness. Just anticipation.