By Rich Coutinho
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It is sometimes very hard to pinpoint when a baseball player turns the corner but I think Mike Piazza said it best when he told me after the 1999 NLCS, “It is hard to discern one’s character after a win but easy to spot after a loss.” What the certain Hall Of Famer meant was it all about learning from missteps in this sport and listening to the people who can guide you through the minefields of a baseball season. For Jonathon Niese, I think that moment was his start earlier in the year in Philly when he took on Roy Halladay.
You remember the game — Halladay did not throw a non-strike till the Citizen Bank faithful had their third round of beers, but Niese matched him inning for inning, the Mets scratched out a run and Niese made a mistake to Ben Francisco which paved the way for a hard luck 2-1 loss.
But the telling moment for me were the comments from Niese after the game. He said, “I have to do a better job. It’s not up to me to hope for more runs–it’s up to me to win no matter what the situation and going up against Halladay, you just need to be perfect.” Since that game, Niese has been real good but unlucky in terms of run support. Yet, not an ounce of “woe is me” from him and last night in Milwaukee, he just had the look of a bulldog who refused to lose and got the Met bullpen to within four outs of a victory that Francisco Rodriguez put in the bank.
From a pitching standpoint, Niese has developed a pretty good cutter which combined with a terrific overhand curve ball makes him nasty to hit. In his last five starts, he has pitched 33.2 innings, given up only 5 earned runs, and struck out 33 batters. Dan Warthen thinks he has become more of a complete pitcher. “Last year, Jonathon was still learning and he was a bit up and down but so much has changed this year if for no other reason than he’s a year older and a year wiser”, says the Met pitching coach. Niese combined with the surprising Dillon Gee has given the Met rotation a real shot in the arm, if you pardon the pun.
With the Met offense still trying to tough it out while David Wright and Ike Davis remain sidelined, the Met rotation has given the Mets a quality start just about every night. And that makes the Mets a much better team as evidenced by their 25-19 record since their 5-13 start. And a big part of the reason is the fact that Jonathon Niese has made the jump from “top prospect” to reliable starter. And if he keeps doing what he has been doing, it could make the jump from reliable starter to ace.
How far has Niese come? Is he a reliable option for the Mets? Leave your comment below.