By Ernie Palladino
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Consider Jonathan Niese as a cautionary tale about burning bridges.
Think twice before setting the match. You may have to walk across that span again.
Niese took that walk across the charred, rickety structure to Citi Field on Tuesday, a day after the Mets traded reliever Antonio Bastardo to Pittsburgh for the left-hander. Lord knows, his homecoming did not stack up as a tearful welcome on all ends. Unless, of course, Niese planned to produce a puddle of the wet stuff as Terry Collins laced into him about his pouty comments in the aftermath of the Dec. 9 trade that brought Neil Walker.
Not that Niese was playing fast and loose with the facts when he criticized the Mets’ defense, Collins’ temporary use of a six-man rotation, and the franchise’s fleeting affection for him.
He’s no Trump. Just a competitive guy who perhaps thinks a tad too highly of his own talents. Everything he said was true. The Mets did have a lousy defense, and the six-man rotation was nothing short of disruptive folly. And yes, the franchise did get tired and frustrated with Niese’s lack of consistency.
But he probably should have kept his thoughts on those subjects to himself, and probably would have if he knew that a mere eight months later he’d wind up back in the place he started. Niese attempted to explain his comments on Tuesday night after the Mets beat the Yankees.
“All I really said was that I was excited to pitch in front of the Pirates’ defense,” Niese said. “It’s unfortunate the way it got turned around, because it’s certainly not what I meant by it.”
Though the Mets look a lot different than the squad Niese helped to the World Series, enough old faces remain who might not feel it below them to fling a locker room barb or two for his petulance.
Perhaps the safest emotional place for Niese is exactly where he’s headed to start his second stint in Flushing — in the bullpen at long relief. He probably won’t get a starting assignment unless Logan Verrett proves faulty. Besides, it really wouldn’t do at this point for Collins to hand a rotation spot to a guy who pitched to a 5.13 ERA in 18 starts before Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle banished him to the pen.
That, of course, is where Niese resided at the end of 2015. The fact that Collins remembers well how Niese helped out of the bullpen at the end of last year’s regular season and came up with two strikeouts in the postseason against the Dodgers and Cubs is a mark in Niese’s favor. The three Game 2 runs he gave up in the World Series were more than balanced by three other appearances where he allowed the Royals no runs on two hits in 3 2/3 innings.
That alone should take a slight edge off the awkwardness factor. And remember, too, that while folks like Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, and Travis d’Arnaud are still around and will undoubtedly remember his body language when things went wrong, Niese will be working with a largely new cast.
The entire infield has changed. David Wright isn’t there anymore, replaced for the most part by last year’s shortstop, Wilmer Flores. Walker replaced Daniel Murphy, a good-hit, no-field second baseman now hitting a league-high .355 in Washington. James Loney is a defensive upgrade at first over the still-ailing Lucas Duda.
Unfortunately, Niese’s arrival comes a couple of days too late for him to benefit from Asdrubal Cabrera’s work at shortstop. Or to see double plays turned regularly by the Cabrera/Walker combination.
He may have to wait a while for that.
In the meantime, Niese will sit safely in the bullpen. It’s up to him now to reclaim whatever good will he plunged into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela with his offseason rants.
Things may get a little rough before that happens, though.
It’s just a lot easier to cross an undamaged bridge than to rebuild the one you burned down.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino