Three weeks ago, Terry Collins told Jonathon Niese that he was about to pitch the biggest game he has ever pitched in his life. The manager was right, it turns out. He was just premature.
Back then, Collins was trying to boost Niese's spirits after a bad loss with the promise of a showdown with the Nationals, when the Mets would need all of the lefthander's talent and experience. It turned into a disaster, which the Mets survived.
When they really needed Niese, and everything he has inside of him, was Monday night. Granted, the opponent was one of the worst teams in the majors, but it was not a matter of "who" but "when." A night after a confidence-shattering debacle, Niese brought calm.
He threw six scoreless innings against the lowly Braves and gave the Mets a victory and a good dose of order.
"I said before the game that this is the time veteran guys have to step up and take over," Collins said after the 4-0 win at Citi Field. "This time of year, when you've had a tough game, they have the knack and the know-how to say 'This is my time to get it done.' "
"It's an important game, it's important to get the win," Niese said. "Every game, we're trying to win."
Completely overshadowed by the Matt Harvey aspect of the Mets' fiasco Sunday was the complete collapse that set in after he left. Chances are, Twitter would not have been ablaze about innings limits had Daniel Murphy and David Wright not made huge fielding gaffes.
Collins probably would not have made such an emotional, emphatic statement about the Harvey Rules Monday if Hansel Robles had been more accurate with a throw to third base, then allowed a pivotal hit to Carlos Beltran and a three-run home run to Dustin Ackley.
We probably would not have heard Collins say Monday: "But it is what it is. And you have to adapt to it. As opposed to leaving him in and creating a tremendous mess that you can't ever get out of, that that's the last game he pitches for the season, it's not worth that . . . "
The point is, that unsightly 11-2 loss to the Yankees raised all sorts of red flags for the Mets, even if they do regain their footing and win the division. You know how they test a model bridge by putting pressure on it a various points? The Yankees pressed the Mets and the Mets cracked everywhere: their defense was awful, their middle relief was terrible, their righthanded lineup failed all night, especially when it had a chance to put away CC Sabathia early.
Of that Sunday loss, Niese said: "I really don't think about that stuff while I'm out there. I just want to go out there and execute and give the team a chance to win."
Anyway, Monday night was a different kind of test. It was a mettle detector, to see if the Mets could put all of that behind them. As Collins said before the game: "New game. Last night? Over. Today is the only thing to worry about and Jon Niese getting us to the seventh inning. That's my biggest concern . . . "
They needed Niese to give them more than the five innings that Harvey had given them. They needed him to give them the reassurance that the sky had not fallen and that it won't. They needed him to give them what a veteran is supposed to give: a mature, uncomplicated effort against a lousy team.
What he gave them, in a lot of ways, was the game of his life. The division championship wasn't at stake, but the Mets' psyche was. "This was a game we needed to have," Collins said, "and Jon gave it to us."
It was Niese's first win in a month, since Aug. 22. "Really, everything was working tonight," he said.
Niese got them to the seventh inning, just as the manager had hoped. And he got Mets watchers off the ledge, at least for the time being.