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Jonathon Niese exits early, but Mets tough it out

New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathon Niese winds

New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathon Niese winds up during the first inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, in St. Louis. Photo Credit: AP / Billy Hurst

ST. LOUIS

ST. LOUIS

Minutes after beating the Cardinals Tuesday night, with a 7-4 victory they should be proud of, the Mets stashed Jonathon Niese in a place he could no longer hurt them. Not this season, anyway, and not in this wild-card chase.

By throwing only 21 pitches, and then bowing out in the first inning, Niese committed an almost unforgivable sin for a starter, a crime made worse by the uphill climb the Mets are facing in this five-week scramble for the playoffs. His left knee has been a problem for most of this year — even recently — but the chance for a few turns in the rotation outweighed the potential harm to the team, apparently.

Niese said he was OK to start Tuesday night. His performance, however, screamed the opposite. And in some parts of the Mets clubhouse, the risk he seemingly took was not appreciated. As soon as the game was over, immediately after the Mets covered for his premature exit, Niese was put on the disabled list. It’s highly doubtful he’ll return this season.

“I got to get it fixed,” Niese said. “I can’t keep going out there like that.”

He talked about hearing a “pop” after throwing a curve ball to Brandon Moss, but others noticed a problem even before the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter came to the plate. After Moss singled, and St. Louis began to chip at him, Niese talked about a “shooting pain” down his leg. He was done, and Terry Collins had to navigate through the next 26 outs.

The Mets did, first by deploying the Las Vegas newbie Robert Gsellman, then followed by five more relievers. So to get overly worked up by Niese’s vanishing act, and whether he was fibbing or not about his condition, would be too much wasted energy for anyone. Niese started the night with a 5.30 ERA, and ended it on the DL. In between, the Mets took the unusual step of saying Niese didn’t feel any discomfort during his bullpen warmups — an unusual statement to make mid-game, but a transparent effort by the team to quickly apply more spin than any of his breaking pitches.

Let’s face it. The Mets’ wild-card fortunes aren’t riding on Niese’s left arm. The best thing Niese ever did was get them Neil Walker, as well as provide Sandy Alderson a reason to boot Antonio Bastardo from Flushing. Niese’s rotation cameo on this road trip, as frustrating as it was to watch, is merely a symptom of the bigger issue plaguing the Mets, a team now having to overcome the pitching staff rather than rely on it.

That’s the key to these final 37 games, and whether the defending NL champs will get another shot in the October tournament. Not the best time for an identity crisis. Already down Matt Harvey, and Zack Wheeler lost until 2017, Steven Matz became the latest pitcher in limbo this week when he was put on the DL with left shoulder tightness. Collins said before Tuesday’s game the hope is Matz misses only more one start, but history would suggest otherwise. As if the bone spur in his left elbow wasn’t enough to worry about.

“We had no idea they’d break down like this — none,” Collins said.

But too many did, and Mound Rushmore, as Newsday colleague Marc Carig labeled it back in Port St. Lucie, has come crumbling down before September. The Mets, however, don’t necessarily have to remain buried in that rubble. Since the All-Star break, the Mets’ rotation ERA was 3.88, which was tied with the Pirates for eighth in the majors. The Cubs were atop the list with a 2.40 ERA. Add in the bullpen, and the Mets’ staff ERA jumps to 4.18, right in the middle of the pack at No. 15 overall. Again, the Cubbies are No. 1 with a 2.59 ERA.

Stripped of that normally protective layer, the Mets were 15-21 in the second half before Tuesday’s win at Busch Stadium, where Jose Reyes continued to spur them from the leadoff spot (3-for-4, walk, 3 runs scored) and Wilmer Flores and Justin Ruggiano homered.

“They know they’re playing for something,” Collins said.

Maybe something different than what Niese had in mind when he took the mound Tuesday night.

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