SAN FRANCISCO -- For all the buzz surrounding Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and the bright, shiny future of New York's starting rotation, it is easy to overlook Jon Niese's own significant role in that plan. No Mets player is under guaranteed contract longer than Niese, whose deal could keep him in Flushing through 2018.
So before Niese stifled the Giants over seven innings of a 2-1 victory Wednesday, successfully rebounding from one of his worst starts of the season, manager Terry Collins discussed the importance of Niese completing a full, healthy big league season for the first time in his career.
"He's a big piece to this," catcher Josh Thole said. "Absolutely he's a big piece to this. As he develops and gets older and understands the league more, he's going to get that much better than he is now."
The left-hander took another step toward that goal at AT&T Park, pitching around two first-inning walks and multiple defensive miscues to hold the Giants scoreless into the sixth. Buster Posey finally took advantage of an ill-placed cutter with two outs in that inning, launching a solo homer off the roof of an ambulance parked beyond the left-field wall. But the Giants could do no further damage against Niese.
Coming off an outing in which he served up a career-high eight runs in Arizona, Niese lasted seven innings, striking out five, walking two and allowing three hits. And Collins was least surprised of all, noting Niese's penchant for improvement five days after inadequate starts.
"He knows he's got very good stuff and when he has a bad outing, he takes it as hard as anybody," Collins said. "He was bound and determined to show that was on the side of aberration."
"That's the beauty of this game, is that when you have outings like that, the next five innings you start all over again," Niese said. "You start with a clean slate."
Support came on the game's second pitch, when Ruben Tejada blasted his first home run in 629 at-bats over the left-center-field wall. Only 13 Mets in history had slogged through longer homerless droughts in their careers.
"It wasn't a terrible pitch," said Giants starter Matt Cain, who served up the shot. "He just put a good swing on it."
The Mets plated a second run on Jordany Valdespin's ground ball in the second inning, before Cain put an early end to the offense. But because Cain was uncharacteristically inefficient, multiple rallies took their toll on the All-Star starter; he needed 97 pitches to complete five innings, allowing the Mets to dip into San Francisco's bullpen in the sixth.
They could not take advantage, stranding seven runners over the final three innings and leading Collins to bemoan that his team should have scored "about nine" runs instead of two. But the Mets' own 'pen held in relief of Niese, with Tim Byrdak, Jon Rauch and Bobby Parnell combining on the final six outs.
"It's a tough one to lose because we were dodging bullets all night," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "We were fortunate to be in that game."
For Niese, the day marked the beginning of what should be a telling two-month stretch. Three years ago, Niese tore his hamstring in early August, cutting short his first extended look at the Majors. The following summer, battling weight gain and conditioning issues, Niese lost six of his final seven starts while posting a 7.57 ERA over that span. Last year, with concerns about his overall fitness still dogging him, Niese strained an oblique in late August and missed the rest of the season.
But Niese underwent a rhinoplasty reconstruction over the winter in part because he believed it would improve his breathing, allowing him to stay in better cardiovascular shape. Banking on his long-term health when they signed him to a five-year, $25.5-million contract extension earlier this season, the Mets hope that translates into a fitter, more durable pitcher throughout the months of August and September.
"We've got to keep him on the field," Collins said. "You're looking at pretty much the month of September, he hasn't pitched. And we need to make sure we keep this guy on the field throughout the season."