David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
In the only no-hitter of Jonathon Niese's relatively short pitching career, and a perfect game at that, he didn't make it past the fifth inning. Niese was a senior at Defiance (Ohio) High and his team, the Bulldogs, abruptly ended his day by scoring 10 runs to invoke the mercy rule.
Fast-forward to Sunday at Citi Field, where Niese again was working on a no-hitter, this time against the Braves, and forces beyond his control were conspiring to pull the plug on his flirtation with history.
Niese was hardly perfect through six innings -- he walked three of the first six batters he faced -- but he had yet to surrender a hit.
The problem was his pitch count. Niese already was at 88, with the meter still running, and that was the only number Terry Collins and Dan Warthen cared about. Everyone else in the building was fixated on 7,971, as in the current number of games without a no-hitter for the Mets. The Padres and Mets are the only teams with the dubious distinction of never having thrown one.
"Dan and I had already talked about it," Collins said. "We were going to actually give him about 115 pitches. We thought that would be the max in any case."
That meant Niese had roughly 30 pitches left to make it through three innings. The Mets, who had just announced a five-year, $25.52-million extension with him a day earlier, were not going to be flexible.
"He would have come out of the game," Collins repeated. "You don't sacrifice his health, so he would have been out."
Fortunately for the parties involved, it never came to that. Niese began that seventh inning by laboring through a 10-pitch walk to Dan Uggla. Freddie Freeman followed by smacking the next pitch, No. 99, cleanly through the hole in the right side of the infield for the first hit.
Niese received some nice applause from the crowd of 27,855 for making it that far. But two batters later, he was history. Lucas Duda bungled Matt Diaz's fly ball and Jason Heyward's two-run double had Collins flying up the dugout steps.
"Everything happened so fast there," Niese said. "It spiraled real quick at the end."
Even for a franchise desperately craving a no-hitter -- if only to shed the embarrassment of six former Mets throwing one after they left Flushing -- it really was the best possible outcome. The last thing the Mets needed was Collins and Niese arguing about the chance to dramatically increase the odds of the 25-year-old lefthander getting hurt. In a game they had led 7-0. And did we mention it was a day after the Mets committed to him for $25.52 million?
If Niese had made it through the seventh, Collins was prepared to let him start the eighth, but it would have been dicey after that.
When told his manager had no intention of letting him chase history that late in the game, Niese smiled.
"I'd have run back out there," he said. "It would have been hard to take me out, that's for sure."
Stuck in the middle, like some kind of couples counselor, was catcher Mike Nickeas. But in this case, he didn't see himself as a neutral observer.
"If it got to that point and he was really close, I'm fighting for Niese," Nickeas said. "If I had known 115 pitches was the max, I would have tried to get him there."
Early on, it looked as though Niese would be back in the clubhouse in time for Easter brunch. Too pumped up in his first start, Niese had little command of his fastball and twice had to strand runners in scoring position in the first two innings.
From there, however, Niese retired 15 straight before the leadoff walk to Uggla in the seventh. The no-hitter evaporated soon after, but Niese wasn't too disappointed. Fresh off his first victory, and the signing of a new contract that eventually could be worth $46 million, it was a pretty good weekend for Niese. "The contract more or less settles my mind," he said. "That I can just go out there and pitch and not worry about anything else."
As for the no-hitter, well, the bet here is that Niese will get plenty more chances to end the Mets' streak before his time in Flushing is over.