By Ernie Palladino
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Not to put any undue pressure on Matt Harvey, but a well-thrown game against the Padres today would look awfully nice for the top of that Mets rotation.
After Jon Niese threw 6 2/3 innings of four-hit, two-run ball on Opening Day, Harvey could raise fan hopes to sky-high levels if he goes out in game No. 2 with the same command he showed in striking out 70 batters in 59 1/3 innings as a rookie last season.
So that, and there would be signs of the Mets having a definite 1-2 punch at the top of that rotation of question marks. Good teams have that. And while nobody should be fooled by the offense displayed in their 11-2 win in the opener — does anyone really think Collin Cowgill is going to carry this team? — it would be great if one facet of consistent winning could take early root.
It has been clear for a long time that if the Mets are going to attain any relevance this year, they will do so through their pitching, not their bats. That philosophy took a huge hit last week when Johan Santana disappeared from the 2013 picture. Everyone had to step up a place. Niese became the No. 1 starter, Harvey No. 2, Dillon Gee No. 3.
Now, thanks to a wonderful first outing, Niese is the nominal ace of this staff. Reluctant, perhaps, as he said straight out in the locker room that he’d rather not lead the rotation. Fact is, he’s in that position now. And now in his third full big-league season, it is time he stepped forward into bigger shoes.
Judging by Opening Day, it looks like the fit is just fine. Time will tell, of course, but his 13-9, 3.40 mark of last year, which came with 155 strikeouts in 190 1/3 innings over his 30 starts offers evidence that he’ll do just fine at the top. Opponents posted just a .241 average against the 26-year-old left-hander, making him the 13th-ranked hardest-to-hit starter in the NL.
Harvey, of course, is the second part of this equation of young guns. He was itching to come up from Triple-A last year, and when he finally arrived July 26, he made quite the impression in striking out a debut-record 11 Diamondbacks.
Harvey was going to move up from fifth-starter status once R.A. Dickey went off to Toronto, anyway. But now there is significant weight on his shoulders to hold up as a No. 2 guy. He should have few problems with that, though, considering the composure and command he showed in striking out 33 in the 27 1/3 innings of his seven starts.
Niese provided a glimpse of what could be the immediate bright future two days ago, not just in winning his first outing, but in the way he did it. He was strictly a 95-pitch guy last season, and he accepted that. This year, he wants to get the Mets to the closer, perhaps finish a few games.
So when Terry Collins asked him if he’d had enough as he neared 95 at the end of the sixth, Niese told him he wanted to stick around a bit more.
He threw 100 before Collins pulled the plug with two out in the seventh.
“It just tells you what a competitor he is,” Collins said. “He’s kind of stepped into a role where he leads the rotation.”
Now it’s Harvey’s turn. If he blows away the Padres as Niese did, it’ll give that rotation an unexpectedly nice start. Moreover, it could signal the start of a young 1-2 punch that could go far in easing the sting of losing their ace Santana for the season.
Yes, it’s only April. And they’re only the Padres. But that doesn’t mean the start of something big can’t happen right now.
Will Harvey start his year off with a win? Mets fans, sound off in the comments!