David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ATLANTA - According to Sandy Alderson's 2014 blueprint, Jonathon Niese figured to be the ideal building block.
Twenty-six years old.
Under the Mets' control through 2016, with two additional option years, and roughly $24 million guaranteed.
All Niese had to do this season was continue being Jonathon Niese, and the Mets would feel confident about slotting him between Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. But after the dynamic duo lived up to the hype this week, the dream scenario veered off course last night when Niese left in the fourth inning with what the Mets described as "left shoulder discomfort."
Niese is headed back to New York to be examined Friday. Iit's impossible to know the full extent of the injury until an MRI. He believes it was just another bout of tendinitis.
"There was discomfort," Niese said, "but I tried to pitch through it."
Niese missed a start this season because of shoulder tendinitis, which he said bothered him for nearly a month. It didn't help that two of his April starts took place in subfreezing temperatures. No wonder Niese had a 5.65 ERA in May.
He also didn't look right. Heading into last night, Niese was averaging 4.03 walks per nine innings, a bump up from last year's 2.32. Before the game, Terry Collins wondered why that was the case, but assumed the miserable conditions early on "took a toll on his body." The manager also was under the impression Niese's shoulder was OK.
"You can't go out there and try to be a hero if your arm's bothering you," Collins said, "because you end up causing more damage."
There had been signs of a turnaround. His ERA dropped to 1.93 in his five previous starts, and last night Niese struck out five without a walk. He also threw 42 of his 61 pitches for strikes in 31/3 innings.
The Braves got eight hits during that stretch, but seven were singles, and more suspect defense led to a preventable run in the first. Like Harvey and Wheeler, Niese maintained his composure, But his body betrayed him again in the fourth.
After opening with a strikeout, Niese had a 2-and-2 count on Tyler Pastornicky when he tried a changeup. As soon as he released the pitch, Niese winced. When Collins arrived, Niese told him his shoulder hurts. End of conversation.
"When it bothers him on a night it's nice and warm," the manager said, "you're a little concerned."
The Mets have had to worry way too much about Niese. With Harvey taking the Alpha Dog role in the rotation and handing the title of Next Big Thing to Wheeler, it was going to be up to Niese to reassert himself. He once was the cheap, young lefthanded pitcher that any team would want. But too often, Niese was outperformed this season by Dillon Gee and Jeremy Hefner.
That's not what the Mets had in mind when they took the forward-thinking gamble of buying out Niese's arbitration years. For an organization perilously thin in the lefthanded starter department, it seemed like a good investment. The next lefty prospect on the depth chart? It's Ward Melville alum Steven Matz, who is down at low-A Savannah. In case you're wondering, he's 2-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 11 starts.
So after Niese, it's a long wait. Remember, they were counting on him as a given.
"I think he's a huge piece of the puzzle," Collins said.
This season, Niese is like the one the dog eats or gets lost in the couch cushions. Without him, the Mets are going to have trouble finishing the puzzle.