Jon Niese is ready for his new challenge as a left-handed relief pitcher
A month ago, Jon Niese’s immediate future with the club seemed rather uncertain.
Having no place in a four-man rotation, Niese saw himself he might be the odd man out simply by default, aside from the pitching slump he found himself in during the latter part of August and early part of September.
Knowing he had only a small chance to be in the playoff rotation, Niese himself took the initiative to go to Terry Collins and the coaching staff and volunteer himself for relief duties should the club make the postseason.
From the sound of it, Collins and Sandy Alderson were pleased with Niese’s initiative and willingness to shift roles in an effort to contribute to the team in any way possible.
They quickly warmed to the idea of Niese going to the bullpen, and after the Mets clinched, Collins pulled the trigger, removing Niese from the rotation and began a week-long tryout as a reliever against the Phillies and Nationals.
His first test against the Phillies went reasonably well, although the conditions in which he entered his first game on September 29 against the Phillies were not typical for that as a starter.
He was given ample time to warm up and pretty much had an idea as to when he would enter the game, knowing full well he would get to start an inning.
In his first test, he allowed three hits and a run in 1 2/3 innings to the Phillies. That’s not an inspiring line by any means.
“There’s going to be situations where he’s not going to have that kind of time,” the manager said. “I think that’s the next challenge, to see if he can possibly get ready.”
The next test would be for him to enter a game in the middle of an inning, followed by a back-to-back assignment. As it turned out, Collins combined the two tests the very next night, during which Niese allowed a hit in one-third of an inning, although that one hit was an RBI single to the lefty-swinging Cody Asche.
He then pitched back-to-back days this past Saturday and Sunday, and allowed two hits and a walk in 1 2/3 innings combined.
His final line as a reliever was not so great in the small sample. Opponents hit .429 against him with six hits in 3 2/3 innings.
Seven of the 15 batters he faced reached base.
Collins acknowledged during this test Niese was going to have to change his approach as a reliever, potentially throwing fewer strikes and changing the eye level more than he normally does.
At any rate, Niese is poised to make the Division Series roster as a reliever thanks potentially to his history against Chase Utley (3-for-36) and Adrian Gonzalez (0-for-11).
While he may not be a left-handed specialist or even a reliever by trade, Collins may have a trusty hand to turn to specifically to get both of those hitters out.
And Niese is looking forward to the challenge and the experience as a whole.
“I feel really good,” Niese told Zach Braziller of the New York Post. “I’ve faced those guys quite a few times across my career. I love big games like that. I’m excited and looking forward to it.”
It’s not totally clear if Niese will be used as that left-handed specialist role, nor is it clear if Collins truly trusts Niese in general out of the bullpen. His splits are hardly inspiring – he held left-handed hitters to a .303/.346/.444 line in 2015, and didn’t fare that much better against right-handed hitters either (.273/.338/.419). He allowed 9.8 hits-per-nine innings and 2.8 walks-per-nine innings, allowing 256 base runners in only 176 2/3 innings.
In addition, they have right-handers very capable of neutralizing left-handed threats in Addison Reed, Tyler Clippard and Hansel Robles, all of whom combined to hold left-handed hitters to a .179 average in 2015.
And certainly those three pitchers have a longer resume than Niese as a reliever.
But no matter how Niese is used, he is looking forward to the club’s first playoff showcase after going through all of the trials the only franchise he knows to get to this point.
“It’s been a long seven years,” Niese told Braziller. “It’s good to have the patience, to battle through those years, to finally get the job done and get to the postseason. It’s a good feeling.”