Johan Santana's season-ending shoulder injury thrust Jonathon Niese into the spotlight. And for a while, the Mets lefthander withered under the weight of the challenge, struggling to assert himself in his new role atop the starting rotation.
He pitched through aches and pains but didn't do it well, leaving him to fix his jumbled pitching mechanics.
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But Niese has emerged from his early-season stumble. And against the Yankees Monday night, he allowed one run and eight hits in seven innings in the Subway Series opener. It was the latest sign that the Mets finally may have the pitcher they hoped would lead the rotation alongside phenom Matt Harvey.
Niese's issues came to a head on May 11 when he was battered for eight runs against the Pirates. But Niese spent the following days ironing out his mechanics, which he said became compromised as he pitched through soreness in his neck and back.
The work paid off immediately.
On May 16 in St. Louis, Niese allowed two runs in 71/3 innings, the start of a three-start stretch in which he pitched to a 1.33 ERA.
Niese's resurgence would be a welcome development for the Mets. Starting pitching had been expected to be a team strength, but Santana never made it out of spring training, leaving Niese to start Opening Day.
Aside from Harvey, whose 5-0 start has been one of the Mets' few highlights this season, the rotation has struggled with underperformance. Shaun Marcum has only recently gained some footing after beginning the year on the disabled list and Dillon Gee has struggled to pitch deep into games.
At the start of play Monday, the Mets starters' 4.38 ERA ranked 12th in the National League.
But Niese's turnaround could help bring some stability back to a rotation that also might be supplemented by top prospect Zack Wheeler by the middle of June.
Monday night, Niese didn't get much help. David Wright's solo shot in the seventh inning represented the only run support Niese has received in his last two starts. He watched as Yankees centerfielder Brett Gardner robbed Daniel Murphy of what would have been a two-run homer in the sixth.
Niese (3-5, 4.40 ERA), who collected two hits, worked out of trouble against the Yankees several times. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the second by getting Chris Stewart to bounce into a double play started by Wright. In the sixth, after allowing a run-scoring bloop single by Jayson Nix, Niese limited the damage by getting Robinson Cano to hit into another double play.
By the end of his night, Niese had scattered eight hits, walked one and struck out four. But he limited the damage to one run, lowering his ERA to 2.05 in four career starts against the Mets' crosstown rivals.