- Ian Begley, ESPN New York Writer
- 0 Shares
Niese's return to Queens on Saturday forced the Mets to make a roster move, so the team decided before the game to send struggling Oliver Perez to the disabled list, no doubt satisfying a rabid fan base that had grown tired of Perez's refusal to accept a demotion to the minor leagues.
Niese then went out and mowed down the Florida Marlins in his first start in nearly three weeks, displaying the confidence and command that had been missing before he went on the disabled list May 19 with a right hamstring strain.
The 23-year-old lefty had six strikeouts in seven innings (one shy of his career high) and kept the Marlins off balance with a steady diet of first-pitch curveballs as he improved to 2-2 and lowed his ERA by more than half a run to 4.28.
"He was very fresh, very fresh today. Good rhythm, good tempo and [he] got the ground balls that we needed," Jerry Manuel said after the Mets topped the Marlins 6-1 for their seventh straight win at Citi Field. "The thing that impressed me most was his secondary pitches and being able to throw them early in the count. You don't really anticipate that a guy [coming off the disabled list] is going to command the secondary pitches as well as he did today and go to them as often as he did."
Niese threw nine first-pitch curveballs for strikes, yielding three hits and striking out four in those at-bats.
He allowed just six hits and one earned run, a vast improvement from his performanc prior to the hamstring injury he suffered in a May 16 start in Florida -- the same injury that forced Niese to have season-ending surgery last August.
Niese came into Saturday's start allowing 12.19 hits per nine innings (fourth-highest in the majors) and had an ERA of 8.78 over his last three starts. But he threw 63 of his 90 pitches for strikes and first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 26 Marlins hitters he faced Saturday.
"I just tried to pound the zone and get early contact," said Niese. "I was able to make a pitch when it sorta mattered."
The 23-year-old lefty cruised through six innings, facing just three hitters over the minimum. He got into trouble in the seventh when Dan Uggla drilled a low line drive just inside the left-field foul line for a one-out double. Uggla reached third on a wild pitch and scored on Ronny Paulino's single. But Niese ended the threat when he struck out Cameron Maybin and got Wes Helms to hit an easy comebacker to the mound.
"It was great, it was a great feeling to know that everything was OK and I was feeling good," Niese said.
With Niese's effort Saturday, Mets starters improved to 10-2 with a 2.33 ERA in the past 18 games. The 2.33 ERA is the lowest in the majors over that span and a sharp departure from a 15-game stretch in May when the Mets starters went 0-6 with a 6.98 ERA.
Of course, that was in the middle of the Perez-John Maine meltdown.
Now, Perez is headed to Florida for who knows how long and Maine is in the middle of a rehab stint to heal tendinitis in his right shoulder.
In their absence, R.A. Dickey (3-0, 3.20 ERA) and Hisanori Takahashi (4-2, 3.21 ERA) have emerged to help the Mets climb out of last place and move just 3.5 games back of the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
"I feel pretty good about the rotation. I was very confident even after we left spring training," Manuel said. "To have the type of depth that was created from the beginning and to have those guys come on and do what they've done puts us in a good position. No doubt about it."
Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com
Goodbye, Oliver Perez. Hello, Jonathon Niese.