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

Gee Hard Luck Loser To Padres As Offense Styfled

SCORE: San Diego 2, Mets 1, at Citi Field.

RECORD: 2-1.

GEE: Hard luck loser.

GEE: Hard luck loser.

SUMMARY: What, you expected this to last forever? When you pitch you always have a chance to win. When you don’t hit, that chance is negated. The Mets wasted a solid outing from Dillon Gee in suffering their first loss of the season today by the Padres. This coming after the Mets outscored the Padres, 19-6 in their first two games. “Dillon pitched well, we just weren’t able to pick him up,’’ said Ike Davis.

ON THE MOUND: Gee deserved more than a loss as he gave up a run on three hits and three walks, with four strikeouts in 6.1 innings. “That’s baseball,’’ he said, giving the stock answer for every pitcher’s hard luck loss. Gee, who is coming back from surgery that repaired an artery in his pitching shoulder, said he was not bothered by the cold. … Scott Rice gave up two hits in two-thirds of an inning, but did get out of a jam in the seventh when the Padres could have broken the game open. … Jeurys Familia threw a run-producing wild pitch in the eighth. That came back to haunt the Mets as John Buck homered to lead off the ninth. … Both of San Diego’s runs were the result of lead off walks.

AT THE PLATE: Five hits won’t get it done. Three of those hits were by Justin Turner, who was making his first start of the season. However, with a chance to get the Mets back into the game, Turner grounded out with the tying run on third to end the seventh. Manager Terry Collins said he considered pinch-hitting with Daniel Murphy, but opted to go with Turner, who was hot and had more at-bats during spring training. … Their lone run came on Buck’s homer. The Mets were 0-for-10 with runners on base, and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Mets hitters struck out 14 times, including three times by Lucas Duda and David Wright, and twice by Marlon Byrd and Ike Davis. That’s ten strikeouts by their 3-4-5-6 hitters. Make it 11 if you count Murphy striking out as a pinch hitter in Duda’s spot (after a double switch).

METS MUSINGS: Despite having a need for a starting pitcher, the Mets didn’t have an interest in bringing back Chris Young. Instead, he signed with Washington to a minor league contract. The Mets also lost out on Josh Stinson, who signed with Baltimore. … Shaun Marcum was given a MRI that revealed neck inflammation. He was given an injection and will return to Port St. Lucie tomorrow, where he will be shut down for 48 hours.

ON DECK: The Miami Marlins are in tomorrow night for the start of a three-game series.

PROBABLES vs. MIAMI

Friday: RHP Alex Sanabia vs. RHP Jeremy Hefner, 7:10 p.m., SNY/WFAN

Saturday: RHP Ricky Nolasco vs. LHP Jon Niese, 1:10 p.m., SNY/WFAN

Sunday: RHP Jose Fernandez vs. TBA, 1:10 p.m., SNY/WFAN

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.

Apr 03

Matt Harvey Dominates Padres; Lucas Duda And Ike Davis Go Deep

Matt Harvey was everything the Mets hoped for as he dominated the San Diego Padres, 8-4, in frigid Citi Field tonight. Harvey gave up one hit with ten strikeouts in seven scoreless innings.

All San Diego’s runs came against the bullpen, which is expected to be a Mets’ Achilles Heel this season, but not even it could ruin this night.

HARVEY: Overpowering

HARVEY: Overpowering (AP)

Especially impressive was Harvey did it pitching with temperatures in the low 30s after the wind-chill. Harvey was in complete control, but at 94 pitches after seven, manager Terry Collins thought it was time to pull the plug.

“Believe me, later in the season in a close game he’s not going to want to come out. There will be huge argument in taking him out,’’ Collins said. “He was getting stiff. He was cold. Under the circumstances he pitched a very impressive game. In weather like that, the ball feels like a cue ball.’’

Harvey said he doesn’t want to be just a major league pitcher, but a great pitcher, and to do that he’s not afraid of putting in the work as in running the steps in the Citi Field stands this winter. It’s easy to say you want to be good, but the key is to make the effort.

The victory was the first of Harvey’s career at Citi Field, and he became the fourth Mets pitcher to register at least 80 strikeouts in his first 11 starts with the team, joining Pedro Martinez, Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan.

“Today it was the fastball,’’ Harvey said of what was working. “I threw some good sliders when I needed and I threw my change-up in timely counts. … I said all spring training I wanted to pound the zone and I wasn’t about to let the cold effect me.’’

Harvey wore short sleeves and refused a jacket when he was on the bases: “In my mind, a jacket doesn’t belong on a baseball field.’’

That’s the mentality of an offensive lineman, and the Mets haven’t had that in a long time.

POWER PLUS: One of the pre-season concerns was if the Mets would hit with power. Collin Cowgill hit a grand slam in the opener, and Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and John Buck each hit two-run homers last night off left-hander Clayton Richard. That’s ten RBI on four homers.

“Duda and Ike hitting them off a lefty is huge,’’ Collins said. “If those two guys are hitting, it’s a tough line-up to get through.’’

The Mets have outscored the Padres, 19-6, in winning their first two games.

MARCUM UPDATE: Shaun Green returned to New York from Port St. Lucie to have his neck and shoulder re-examined. He’s already on the disabled list, and Collins said Aaron Laffey would start in his place Sunday against Miami.

“He has some real discomfort running from his shoulder up through his neck,’’ Collins said. “What that is, where it starts, what’s causing it, I think we won’t know until he sees the doctor tomorrow.’’

The Mets signed Laffey as a free agent in December. At 27, he’s also pitched with Cleveland, Seattle, Toronto and the Yankees. He went 4-6 with a 4.56 ERA in 22 games, including 16 starts with the Blue Jays last year.

“Hopefully he comes in Sunday and pitches very well,’’ Collins said. “If he does, he most likely will get another start. But we’re going to just take one start at a time right now.’’