Losing to the Phillies the way they did Friday night in their first game after the All-Star break put the Mets on the precipice of a sudden downward spiral by extending their losing streak to three games. Everyone in a Mets uniform knows it's crunch time with the trade deadline looming two weeks from Sunday.
What the Mets needed was a stopper, and lefthanded pitcher Jonathon Niese stepped up with perfect timing to throttle the powerful Phillies, shutting them out over the first six innings of an 11-2 win Saturday at Citi Field. Niese (9-7) gave up two runs in the seventh, only one of which was earned, but completed an inning that began with three straight singles to load the bases with no outs.
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"We came out [Friday] and maybe we were bothered by the trade, I have no idea," Mets manager Terry Collins said, referring to the trade of closer Francisco Rodriguez during the break. "But I think Jonathon Niese said, 'We're going to get back on track here today.' That's just how he's approaching things."
That is the definition of a stopper, and that's the guy the second-year pitcher is becoming for the Mets. Niese was 2-4 early in the season, but over his past 11 starts, he is 7-3 with a 2.58 ERA and has struck out 66 in 692/3 innings in that stretch. He fanned six Phillies Saturday, and in the first six innings, Niese allowed only one runner to reach second base.
"I think Jonathon Niese is getting tougher," Collins said. "His demeanor on the mound, his mound presence is getting tougher. He only threw a few, but he threw some good changeups today. If he gets his changeup -- with the way that he can sink it and cut it -- with his breaking ball, he's going to be a dominant guy."
Niese lost his first two decisions against the Phillies this season and got cuffed around by them in April, but he adjusted and has won his past two meetings against the team with baseball's best record.
"I learned from mistakes and figured out what works and what doesn't," Niese said. "We had the game plan, attacking hitters and using my changeup a little bit more today. That's what we do is stick to our plan, and it worked."
Niese was especially tough on the Phillies' lefty power hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, holding them to no hits in five at-bats and allowing only Utley to reach base on a first-inning walk. "He was getting ahead in the count," Utley said of Niese. "It seems like he was throwing most of his pitches for strikes . He was just attacking the zone, which is what you want your pitcher to do.
"He threw me a couple of changeups, which he hasn't done in the past. It obviously worked for him today."
The way Niese has improved against the division-rival Phillies this season, and even the way he worked his way out of the jam he created in the seventh while minimizing the damage are indications of how much tougher he has become. "I think that has to come with a lot of experience," Niese said. "Just knowing you can do it and just the confidence level. If you're confident, you're mentally tough."