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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

After first three, gee, the Mets' rotation is thin

Dillon Gee leaves the game in the sixth

Dillon Gee leaves the game in the sixth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at Citi Field. (April 4, 2013) Credit: Getty

As far as the Mets' rotation goes, Dillon Gee's start at Citi Field was only a piece of a bigger puzzle that still needs to get figured out, and Thursday's events provided as many questions as answers.

The good news, from Sandy Alderson's perspective, is that Gee appears sound, and he did a capable job in the Mets' 2-1 loss to the Padres. On most days, giving up one run in 6 1/3 innings is going to wind up as a win, and if not for a jittery Jeurys Familia yanking a run-scoring wild pitch past John Buck, maybe the Mets would've remained undefeated.

"It's a turning point," said Gee, who made his first regular-season start since the July 13 surgery to repair a damaged artery in his right shoulder. "Hopefully, I can build on it from there."

After three games, the Mets believe they have a foundation in Gee, Jon Niese and Matt Harvey. True, the Padres, minus Chase Headley and Yasmani Grandal, aren't the most formidable lineup. But the Mets can only beat the team in front of them, and their starters have a 1.35 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 20 innings. Beyond that, however, things get a little shaky.

The team announced that Shaun Marcum was diagnosed with "nerve inflammation" and received three "trigger-point injections." He will return to Port St. Lucie Friday. From there, it's another 48-hour cooling-off period, another re-evaluation, and then who knows what.

Translation: Don't expect much of a payoff on the $4 million that Alderson has invested in Marcum, whose return is impossible to guess until he at least gets into a rehab game. That's not happening soon, either.

Instead, the Mets are forced to count on the likes of Jeremy Hefner, who starts Friday night against the Marlins, and Aaron Laffey, the Sunday replacement for Marcum. The Mets catch a break with the visit by Jeffrey Loria's stripped-down franchise, but the wait until Harvey gets the ball again will feel like a second winter.

What everyone really wants is the speedy call-up of Zack Wheeler, and Alderson doesn't seem prepared to do that yet. Wheeler was scheduled to make his first start for Triple-A Las Vegas late Thursday night in Sacramento, Calif., but it's uncertain if his performance will hasten the Mets' plans for him.

Even with all the talk about delaying the start of Wheeler's arbitration clock, Alderson insists he's not ready for the major-league rotation. Judging solely on ability, there's little doubt that Wheeler would give the Mets a better chance to win now than Hefner or Laffey do. But Alderson has to think long-term with his top pitching prospect.

Once Wheeler arrives, the Mets will have their young guns in place. Gee makes for a nice No. 4 starter, and if Marcum remains in perpetual rehab, maybe the Mets can find another arm around the All-Star break if they manage to stay in contention.

But that's a lot of ifs. And watching the Mets strike out 14 times in losing a very winnable game was a buzz kill after a fun 2-0 start. Gee doesn't generate the same hype as Harvey or bring the expectations of Niese, but he's the last line of defense for a rotation that thins out quickly once his day is over.

On another frosty day, Gee again was reliable. In 50 starts, he's failed to pitch at least five innings only three times. "I didn't have 10 strikeouts like Harvey," Gee said. "Guys want to keep topping each other. I was able to at least minimize the damage."

Damage control. That's a good mantra for the Mets over these next few days, with Niese sticking out in the middle of the weekend like a large rock dividing a fast-moving stream. As the wait for Wheeler continues, they have to prevent these good feelings from being washed away and take advantage of a relatively soft early schedule. If not, Hefner and Laffey will turn out to be nothing more than symptoms of a much bigger malaise.

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