ATLANTA -- The most pressing question about Jonathon Niese used to revolve around his health. For all his promise, which the Mets acknowledged by awarding him a contract extension, the lefthander had never withstood the rigors of a full season.
That changed last night, when Niese beat the Braves, 3-1, punctuating a season in which he never failed to answer the call.
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"Jon pitched an outstanding game," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He should be very proud of the season he's had."
A sellout crowd of 51,910 packed Turner Field on what Gov. Nathan Deal proclaimed to be Chipper Jones Day in Georgia. The Mets applauded from the top step of their dugout as the Braves feted the retiring Jones in a moving pregame ceremony.
"It couldn't go to a more deserving guy," said Niese, who didn't allow his respect for Jones to get in the way of beating his team.
Niese scattered four hits in seven innings, with his only mistake coming on a solo shot by Freddie Freeman. He departed with a lead thanks to Lucas Duda, who hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning, the deciding blow in a nine-pitch battle with tough veteran Tim Hudson. Duda's dramatic homer silenced the raucous crowd, which later was forced to watch fill-in closer Bobby Parnell notch the save.
Injuries hampered Niese in every season beginning in 2009, cut short by a hamstring tear. A hamstring strain landed him on the disabled list in 2010. An intercostal strain sent him to the DL in 2011. But in 2012, a healthy Niese established career bests in wins (13), ERA (3.40) and innings pitched (190 1/3).
All are encouraging signs for the 25-year-old Niese, whose contract could keep him under team control through 2018. Though he fell just short of 200 innings thanks to the Mets' six-man rotation, Niese tied a career high last night by making his 30th start of the season.
Collins said Niese's growth has been evident. Even when certain pitches haven't worked for Niese earlier in games, Collins said he has learned to stick with them. He has worked on a changeup that might make him even more effective in the future, and he has learned to pitch deep into games.
Yet Niese's season boils down to the answer he fashioned to one lingering question.
"The biggest thing for me is being able to stay healthy," he said. "Like I said before, my goal each time I go out there is to put up a quality start, to give the team a chance to win. When I walk off the mound and our team has a chance to win, that's satisfaction."
Notes & quotes: Closer Frank Francisco hasn't played catch in five days, an indication that his season likely is finished because of lingering tendinitis in his right elbow. Parnell will get the call during save situations the rest of the way . . . R.A. Dickey expects to pitch on regular rest Tuesday in Miami. But Collins said he might bump Dickey to Wednesday's series finale because the knuckleballer threw 128 pitches in 7 2/3 innings Thursday . . . Jeremy Hefner and pitching prospect Jeurys Familia are expected to start for the Mets against Miami . . . During the pregame ceremony honoring Jones, Braves president John Schuerholz referred to Hank Aaron as "the true Major League Baseball home run champion." The crowd cheered the barb, aimed at steroids-tainted home run leader Barry Bonds . . . Longtime Mets-killer Jones went 0-for-4.