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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Jonathon Niese delivers as Mets' Opening Day starter

Jonathon Niese pitching in the first inning

Jonathon Niese pitching in the first inning on Opening Day against the Padres at Citi Field. (April 1, 2013) Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball the entire month of March was that Jonathon Niese was going to be the Mets' Opening Day starter because Johan Santana wasn't going to be ready to start the season.

Niese acted as if it were no big deal. Turns out he was just acting.

"About three weeks before we named him the Opening Day starter, I went to him and said, 'Look, there's a real good chance Johan's not going to be ready, and if he's not, it's going to be you,' " manager Terry Collins said Monday after Niese pitched and hit the Mets to an 11-2 victory over the Padres at Citi Field.

"He said, 'All right!' That means he wanted it. Bad."

Niese had said he was going to treat the opener like a midseason start. Balderdash, we thought at the time.

"I'm not going to lie: The adrenaline was pumping," he said after allowing two runs in 62/3 innings and going 2-for-2 with a walk and an RBI. "But I prepared as if it was any other game. I had my pregame routine that I followed and I treated it as if it was just another game."

It wasn't. It was a chance for the Mets to gain some credibility with their fans (mission accomplished!) and a chance for Niese to show he can be a true staff leader.

That mission might take a little longer to complete.

"As far as leading the staff, I really don't want to fulfill that role," Niese said in a moment of candor so rare for today's athletes that you had to respect it. "I think everybody, all the guys in the rotation, have something different to offer. So I'm willing to learn from them and I'm sure they're willing to learn from me."

Niese does have a point: If things work out the way the Mets hope, he probably won't be the Game 1 starter next year anyway. By then, Matt Harvey or even Zack Wheeler will have blossomed into the ace Niese thinks he's not cut out to be, whether it's stuff or experience or demeanor he feels is lacking.

But try telling that to Collins or Niese's teammates, who aren't ready to give up on Niese-as-ace.

"He's stepped into a role where he kind of leads that rotation," Collins said.

Said catcher John Buck: "A lot of pressure to move into that role. He stepped up to it."

Niese gave up four hits, struck out four, walked two and hit a batter. He left to a richly deserved ovation after getting the first two outs of the seventh.

At age 26, with a contract that could tether him to the Mets until 2018, Niese is one of the team's core players, if not the one who is going to lead the charge.

If and when the Mets are ready to contend again -- sorry, you can't draw that conclusion for 2013 after .6 percent of the season has been played, as nice as Monday was -- Niese will be in the middle of it. An emerging lefty to drop in between hard-throwing righties Harvey and Wheeler for years to come.

At least that's the plan.

Niese also drove in the Mets' second run with a single to left in the second. He drew a four-pitch walk leading off the fourth and singled to center in the fifth. And these weren't dinky-dunky pitcher hits, either. These were line drives.

"I really don't work that much on hitting," Niese said. "I'm a pitcher."

An ace pitcher. At least for one day.

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