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Are Niese, Nieve opening door for Takahashi?

HISANORI TAKAHASHI Relief pitcher, 26, first year with

HISANORI TAKAHASHI
Relief pitcher, 26, first year with the Mets.
Lefthander wowed Manuel and the coaching staff in spring training with his ?instincts? on the mound. Manuel at one point called him the ?sharpest? pitcher in camp. Photo Credit: Getty Images

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - - All that is certain about the Mets' fifth starter competition is that someone will leave camp with the job.

The identity of that person remains very much a mystery.

The top two candidates - Jonathon Niese and Fernando Nieve - each threw three innings in the Mets' 6-5 win over the Cardinals Monday, but neither did anything to make himself stand out.

Niese allowed three runs - two earned - and four hits and Nieve gave up two runs and five hits. Manager Jerry Manuel took some positives from each pitcher's outing, but the fact that neither overly impressed is good news for Hisanori Takahashi, the sleeper in this competition.

Takahashi has thrown six scoreless innings, and Manuel referred to the lefthander as "probably our sharpest pitcher right now." Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen have been impressed by Takahashi's strategic instincts regarding changing speeds and pitch selection.

Takahashi has been used as a reliever thus far, but Manuel said he plans to have him start a game in camp so they can see him in that role. If he remains on the same five-day schedule, his last appearance will be March 29, an ideal day for a start because the Mets have split-squad games scheduled.

The competition appears to be headed into the final days of camp, something Manuel said is possible.

Niese retired the first six batters he faced, then started his third inning by striking out Colby Rasmus. But the ball got away from catcher Rod Barajas, and Niese unraveled. He gave up four hits, including an RBI double by Ryan Ludwick and RBI singles by Allen Craig and Nick Stavinoha.

Niese took solace in that he felt good on the mound. He showed no ill effects of the torn right hamstring that ended his 2009 season as he made two plays off the mound.

"I just want to stay healthy," Niese said. "If I stay healthy, I have a shot."

Nieve's struggles occurred in the first inning; he gave up four consecutive one-out hits, including RBI singles by Albert Pujols, Rasmus and Ludwick. Manuel said Nieve relied too much on his fastball in the first inning but that he showed improvement by mixing his secondary pitches in the second and third innings.

Manuel reiterated that it's possible Nieve will make the club as a reliever, a decision that partly would be motivated by the fact that he is out of options and would need to pass through waivers to be sent to the minors.

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