Thursday, June 10, 2010

Niese isn't perfect, but still very nice

Maybe it's because Jonathon Niese was born the day the Mets won their last World Series championship. Maybe it's because Fred Wilpon made it clear in spring training how much the organization loves him. Or maybe it's Niese's Owen Wilson-esque nose.

Whatever the reason, Mets fans have generally exhibited a fondness for Niese that exceeds what he has achieved so far in his young career. Prior to his horrible hamstring injury last season, Niese had showed signs of becoming a top young starter, but from the start of the 2010 season to his recent DL stint, Niese had been simply average, and there was a thought that maybe Mets fans were expecting too much from someone with just 16 career starts.

Or maybe not.

Niese's performance Thursday night against the Padres was, quite simply, one of the best pitching performances in team history. Niese faced 28 Padres and set down 27 of them, walking no one and allowing just a third-inning double, a squibber down the right field line by Chris "Who?" Denorfia.

In a season that has seen two perfect games and one imperfect game with an asterisk, Niese came one batter short of an unthinkable third (fourth) perfect game in the same season, just 10 days into June. Because the lone hit came in the third, it lacked the drama, but there's no denying the greatness we witnessed this night.

Niese retired the last 21 hitters he faced. He walked no one and struck out six. Of his 108 pitches, 76 were strikes. He induced 15 groundouts and no one on the Padres hit the ball hard all night. The Mets gave him three runs and it was plenty. It could have been more, had Ruben Tejada not hit into a triple play. (When you can overcome a triple play, you know you've got something special going.)

There hasn't been much better in Mets history. We all know that the Mets have never had a no-hitter. Niese's gem was the team's 34th one-hitter, 26th complete-game one-hitter and 24th complete-game, one-hit shutout. The last Met to throw a complete-game one-hitter? Aaron Heilman in 2005.

In his two starts since returning from the DL, Niese has thrown 16 innings and walked only one batter, allowing one run and five hits. This is why everyone is so high on him. Niese has multiple pitches that he can throw for strikes, and if he continues to develop, he really strengthens the rotation behind Santana and Pelfrey. (By the way, Omar, that doesn't mean you don't have to add another starter. You do.)

Oh, yes, Santana. There were two games played Thursday, and Santana just didn't have it in the opener. Santana had a week's rest, and we've seen it before where Santana with too much rest doesn't have the same feel. He allowed eight hits and walked four in six-plus innings, and couldn't break 90 on the radar gun, while Mat Latos and the San Diego bullpen retired 22 Mets in a row. It would be a harbinger of things to come in the nightcap.

I usually DVR the Mets games and watch them 90 minutes or so after they actually start, after the kids are in bed asleep. When I'm done watching, I erase them, but tonight I hesitated. This was a game for the ages, and given the Mets history, there may never be one better. Isn't it worth saving?

I erased it anyway. I'll wait for the no-hitter or the perfect game, which has to come someday. In the meantime, though, we'll remember this one, fondly.

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