Commentary

Mets get off to a Niese start at Citi

New York clicks on all cylinders to start season of low expectations on high note

Updated: April 2, 2013, 12:21 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

There was no token appearance by sore-shouldered Johan Santana during the pregame intros just to hear the applause one last time, and nothing -- not even a leftover stirrup sock in the clubhouse -- to remind everyone that departed Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey lockered just a few stalls down from where Mets starter Jonathon Niese dressed Monday. But the absolute best news for Niese and the Mets was another pitcher from seasons past was a no-show, too: Niese didn't get a knee-knocking visit from the ghost of Mike Pelfrey when he took the mound on Opening Day as the Mets' latest ace by default.

Nor did he spit the bit like Pelfrey did when thrust into the same role once upon a time.

Niese pitched the sort of game that had to give even pessimistic Mets fans a little bounce by the end of the afternoon, and he was backed by a Mets team that did a little bit of everything well during its 11-2 romp over the San Diego Padres at sold-out Citi Field.

[+] EnlargeJonathon Niese
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJonathon Niese allowed two runs, four hits and struck out two in 6 2/3 innings on Opening Day.

For a day anyway, the Mets played like David Wright's prediction that they would be a "scrappy" team could actually be a good thing -- not a euphemistic way of acknowledging they're picked to finish near the bottom of the NL East, so why not punt any big expectations to the 2014 season instead and revel in how, you know, they promise to try really hard?

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had been selling that same vision of "Someday" rather than "Opening Day" as he made the rounds after the Mets broke spring training and he was talking up what to expect this season. In interview after interview, he kept floating the idea that things will be really looking up around here soon, all right -- as soon as rising minor league pitcher Zach Wheeler and catcher Travis D'Arnaud are finally promoted sometime this year. At times it sounded like that would be a sort of second Opening Day while this one was more of a soft rollout.

It was a pre-emptive move by Alderson, of course, a strategy meant to acknowledge the Mets are actively doing something about the fact that they have serious questions dogging them in their starting outfield, the back end of their rotation, and even a little at shortstop, where Ruben Tejada didn't hit much in spring training and booted a ball that was hit at him Monday, too.

That is not a recipe for making everyone forget Jose Reyes, yet another Mets star who isn't here anymore and ain't coming back. But Tejada did make good on his pregame promise to Mets manager Terry Collins that he'd be ready when the season started for real, slapping a two-out, RBI double in the second inning and finishing the day 2-for-4. Collins said at one point he turned to bench coach Bill Geren and joked of Tejada, "Well. He didn't lie to me."

As surprises go, Tejada's hitting revival was almost as disorienting as the sight of a Met wearing No. 44 rapping out two hits, too -- until you remembered that free-agent bust Jason Bay is gone and new catcher John Buck bravely wears that number now, as if he didn't know how haunted it had been around here.

"I thought it was a great start for us, in a lot of ways," Collins said, agreeing with the idea that one of the Mets' early goals is to establish "some credibility" among their fans.

What Niese established was as important as anything. Collins said he tipped him off a couple weeks ago that if Santana was indeed out for the season opener, "It's you." He said Niese responded by nearly yelping, "All right!"

"I'm not going to lie," Niese said Monday. "The adrenalin was pumping."

Buck, who came to the Mets in the trade that sent Dickey to Toronto, said he can see why Niese is often compared to the Yankees' Andy Pettitte, and not just because both of them are left-handers who rely on cutters and breaking balls. "He was cool out there today, he's comfortable with himself, and I don't think there's ever been any questions about his stuff," Buck said.

Niese limited the Padres to four hits, struck out two and surrendered two runs in the 6 2/3 innings he pitched. He successfully talked Collins into letting him come back out for the seventh and, later, sounded very much like the staff leader he has to be when he explained to reporters: "This year, I want to be that guy that goes out and finishes my starts."

He even contributed two singles and an RBI to the Mets' total of 11 hits, and scored a run after drawing a walk in the fourth.

By then, the Mets already led 7-1. They'd already seen Wright make a couple terrific plays in the field and start the game 2-for-2 at the plate with two stolen bases. They had a lot of new faces in important roles and all of them -- not just Niese -- played as if they were determined to fill every column in the box score with something positive.

From start to finish, the Mets played the kind of station-to-station offense they're going to have to put together to succeed this year. They got some nice two-out hitting to drive in runs.

They also got the fastest home run trip around the bases that anyone is likely to have this year when new leadoff hitter/starting center fielder Colin Cowgill -- unsure whether he had just lined a grand slam into the left-field corner in the seventh -- blazed all the way to third at full speed before Mets coach Tim Teufel told him he could jog the rest of the way.

"So I got to enjoy it for 90 feet -- I'll take it," laughed Cowgill.

"That kid," Buck said with a smile, "plays like his hair is on fire."

"All the guys on the bench were saying, 'He's going to help us,'" Collins added.

That made the score 11-2, and this was officially a laugher.

Better yet, for Opening Day, anyway, nobody was doing any laughing at the Mets.

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