Niese Aims for Finishing Touches on Solid Season

Santana Struggles in Return

BY JOE RINI

Although less heralded than Cy Young Award candidate R.A. Dickey, Mets left hander Jonathan Niese has carved out a solid 2012 season as he looks to finish the year strong. This past Sunday, Niese capped the latest Mets homestand with eight innings of one run ball against the Atlanta Braves, and after sweating through the ninth inning dramatics of the bullpen in the 6-5 Mets win, upped his record to 9-6. He and Dickey won both games on the recent 2-4 homestand and are a combined 24-9 for the 55-61 Mets.

Niese, who made his debut with the Mets in 2008, is in his third year in the Mets starting rotation. Based on the promise Niese showed in his first two seasons as a starter, the Mets committed to the 25-year old Ohio native with a five year, $25.5 million contract extension in April of this year. The initial returns on this investment seem to be positive as Niese is poised to exceed his 11 victories from last year while his current earned run average of 3.67 is an improvement from last year’s 4.40.

As the final quarter of the season beckons, the Mets will look to Niese to be more consistent from start to start as well as finish the season on a strong note. Niese has alternated between good and bad outings in his last four starts, leading manager Terry Collins to comment on Sunday, “I don’t know if we’re doing our job getting him prepared or not to where that last one’s overlooked.”

Also, after losing five of his last six decisions in 2010 and ending 2011 on the disabled list, the Mets hope that the progress Niese has shown so far this season will lead to a strong September.

Johan Santana returned to action on Saturday after three weeks on the disabled list to battle the Braves, but the Mets ace recorded only four outs (tied for the shortest outing of his career) and allowed eight runs in a 9-3 Atlanta victory. Besides the heavy workload on his surgically repaired shoulder, the two time Cy Young Award winner’s season has been tripped up since his ankle was stepped on by Reed Johnson of the Chicago Cubs on July 6.

After the game, Terry Collins said Santana felt fine physically and his velocity was improved, but the layoff seemed to contribute to a lack of command of the strike zone. Collins was hopeful that with his return to the rotation and his between start routines, Santana’s performance would improve. With Santana and Chris Young both coming back from shoulder surgeries, the Mets manager did not rule out a six man rotation before the end of the season.

The Mets are in the middle of a six game road trip this week against the first place Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals before returning to Citi Field on August 20 to start a seven game homestand against the Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros.