LAKELAND, Fla. -- There aren't many times -- even in Spring Training -- when squaring off against Tigers ace Justin Verlander in back-to-back outings over a 10-day span would be considered a positive experience for an opposing starter.
Yet that's exactly what it was for Mets starter Jon Niese.
Ten days after basically matching Verlander's output over three innings in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Niese on Monday delivered another stellar outing opposite the 2011 American League Cy Young winner. The left-hander allowed just one hit over 4 2/3 innings and has tossed 7 2/3 scoreless frames in his two Grapefruit League outings.
With Johan Santana in jeopardy of starting the season on the disabled list, Niese's ability to go toe to toe with one of the game's best pitchers in back-to-back starts reassures manager Terry Collins that the southpaw is ready for an Opening Day nod.
"He's really gotten better; he's growing up," Collins said. "To me, he deserves that opportunity [to start on Opening Day] this year. He's reached that point where I think you can look up, hopefully, at the end of the year and this guy's one of the top pitchers of the game."
While those may sound like lofty expectations, Niese improved his ERA by a full run last year, finishing the season 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA in 30 starts. The 26-year-old also proved his durability, working 190 1/3 innings in a year when the Mets' pitching staff was constantly dealing with injuries.
In his third full season, Niese limited the opposition to a .241 batting average and he finished in the top 10 among National League pitchers by holding opponents to a .291 on-base percentage. Collins is confident those numbers will only get better this year if Niese continues to develop his breaking ball as the season approaches.
"We want him to start to get a better feel for his breaking ball -- it's such a huge pitch for him," Collins said. "He's got to get a feel for it, because if that pitch becomes effective, he can be dominant."
That dominance was partially on display Monday, as he mostly silenced a Tigers lineup that included regulars Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Avisail Garcia. Niese's four walks, however, also served as a reminder that both he and his breaking ball are still a work-in-progress.
"I want to eliminate them, but I guess that's part of the game," said Niese, who didn't record a strikeout. "Right now, it's more just working on pitches and on the curveball, which is still not there yet. But a lot of those walks came from just working on pitches that aren't quite there yet."
In that sense, Monday's start was just another Spring Training outing for Niese. He was able to focus solely on what he wanted to work on and not necessarily let the situation dictate his pitch selection as it would in a regular-season contest.
Niese won't have those luxuries in the regular season when his team is taking on a pitcher of Verlander's caliber, but in this case, squaring off with Verlander may have made Niese even more productive.
"I'll have the same plan during the year of how I'm supposed to get hitters out, but maybe [facing Verlander] made me stay more focused," Niese said. "But during the season, I'm just going to go out there and attack hitters as if I'm a No. 5 starter."
Niese certainly won't be the club's No. 5 starter, but the question still remains on whether he will enter the season atop the Mets' rotation. Santana's next step toward preparing for Opening Day remains up in the air, though the team is hopeful he will throw sometime this week.
While Niese seems ready to fill the role if needed, he'd gladly welcome being part of a fully healthy starting rotation come Opening Day.
"Obviously we want Johan to be there," Niese said, "but I'd be happy to fill his shoes if he's not available."
In Collins' eyes at least, Niese has already proved he'd be more than capable -- and having that type of support from his manager only furthers Niese's desire to prove himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
"Any time anybody is an Opening Day starter, it's an honor," Niese said. "I'm glad the organization puts that trust in me if it happens. I'm willing to accept the challenge."