Here's one minefield the Mets were able to cross Sunday and live to tell about it: Jon Niese, back from a worrisome left elbow inflammation that landed him on the disabled list and blew up his scheduled Opening Day start, pitched 52/3 strong innings and felt, he said, "great."

That the Mets lost to the Reds, 2-1, merely reminds of other existential threats: The Mets' tendency to strike out a lot, their still unsettled lineup and an unproven bullpen.

But Niese survived the day, physically and competitively, rather nicely. He was lifted with two outs in the sixth after allowing four singles in the inning-- two of which barely cleared the outstretched gloves of leaping Mets infielders -- for the two Cincinnati runs.

There was "disappointment, obviously," Niese said, "because I wanted to get out of that inning. But I didn't have any pain. I thought I executed some pretty good pitches. They just hit it where our guys weren't.

"My only regret," he said, "was a second fastball to the pitcher."

Alfredo Simon, leading off the sixth, punched it just over the head of second baseman Daniel Murphy. Chris Heisey and Brandon Phillips followed with clean singles before Joey Votto's sacrifice fly.

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But the hit that produced Cincinnati's go-ahead run, slapped into leftfield by Ryan Ludwick, might have been prevented if Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada had been 6 feet tall instead of 5-11.

More to the point, though, "my arm felt good," Niese said, allowing him to pitch with "no worry" and appreciate his return to action.

"After the first inning," he said, "it was one of those things where you just sit there in the dugout and it just hits you. It's, like, nothing can duplicate pitching on a big-league mound. It's a great feeling."

In his absence, he watched from a bar as the Mets opened the season. His house in Florida, where he was making a rehab start, doesn't carry SNY, the Mets' channel. "Tough," he said. "But that was reality. Just get through it. Now I'm here."

And he was up to speed.

"In the first inning," manager Terry Collins said, "he hit 92 a couple of times and I thought, 'OK, he's ready.' Then he threw a couple of good breaking balls and [I thought], 'OK, that's going to be OK.'

"He's got a repertoire that's going to get a lot of people out. He just didn't get any runs to work with."

Through five innings, Niese had allowed two singles and one walk, had struck out four and had retired six consecutive batters before that regretted fastball to Simon.

"He had everything," catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "His fastball, his changeup was great. His curveball was great, he was locating pitches good."

Also, he had "adrenaline," Niese said. "It's great to be back."