NEW YORK -- Heading into Opening Day, the Mets had a Johan Santana-sized vacancy at the top of their rotation. But luckily for them, they also had someone ready to fill it. Southpaw Jon Niese started a season opener for the first time Monday and delivered a standout performance.
Niese worked into the seventh inning and held the Padres at bay, and he even reached base safely three times in his team's 11-2 victory. But perhaps most importantly, Niese lobbied to stay in a one-sided game, and he won the right to face two more batters in Monday's seventh inning.
Why was that a big deal? The Mets have a young and unproven staff with Santana out for the year, and they need somebody up top to set an example. Niese, who owns a 36-32 career record, told manager Terry Collins on Monday that he wanted to keep the ball, even with a five-run lead at the time.
"Last year was kind of the year where I hit that sixth inning and I had 95 pitches, and they kind of shut me down," said Niese. "This year, I want to be that guy that goes back out and finishes my start. I just told him that I wanted to go back out and I felt like I had a lot left. Thankfully, he let me."
Niese was dominant early, allowing just two hits in the first five innings, and his bat helped the Mets forge an early lead. The left-hander came through with a two-out RBI single in the second inning, and he drew a leadoff walk and scored a run in the home team's fourth-inning rally.
Niese notched another two-out hit in the fifth inning, and after cruising through the sixth, he drew his line in the sand. The Mets were leading 7-2 at the time and Niese was nearing his pitch limit, but he stepped up and told his manager that he wanted to stay in the game and preserve the bullpen.
"It just tells you what a competitor he is," said Collins. "I said, 'Look, you've got a start in four days and you've got to go back out there.' We picked 100 pitches as a maximum for him anyway, and he said, 'I'll get there.' He went out and got the first two batters of the inning, and that's all he was going to go. As we said before the game, he's kind of stepped into a role where he leads the rotation."
Niese, a seventh-round selection in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, has seen that transformation happen gradually. He broke into the rotation for good in 2010 and has been one of the Mets' most durable starters, logging at least 26 outings in each of the last three seasons.
And when it came time to take the next step, it happened due to necessity. Santana's shoulder kept him from pitching in the early weeks of Spring Training, giving Collins a chance to think of an alternative. And when the Mets discovered that he needed surgery, they had a replacement in mind.
"About three weeks before we named him the Opening Day starter, I went to [Niese] and said, 'Look, there's a real good chance Johan's not going to be ready. And if he's not, it's going to be you,'" said Collins. "He said, 'All right!' That means he wanted it bad. He got himself ready for it, for sure, and he pitched a great game."
Niese struck out four batters and gave up just two walks on Monday, and he managed to strand two runners in scoring position. The Padres went 1-for-7 on the day with runners in scoring position, and one of their two runs scored on a home run to right field by veteran Carlos Quentin.
The Mets scored two runs in the second inning, and they came back for two more in the third and a three-spot in the fourth. Niese had said in the days leading up to Monday that he'd treat the season opener just like any other game, but his team's offense sure gave him a reason to relax.
"I'm not going to lie: The adrenaline was pumping," he said. "But I prepared as if it was any other game. Before the game, I had my pregame routine that I followed."
Niese said after the game that he doesn't want to be a vocal leader for the staff; he just wants to lead by example and learn from his teammates as much as they can learn from him. And if you ask catcher John Buck about Niese's poise and maturity, he'll give you the highest praise possible.
"I think he's kind of got that naturally," Buck said. "At first in spring, it was like he was being prepared to [Andy] Pettitte. He didn't change who he was. Then he was moved into the No. 1 spot. He didn't change who he was. I feel like it takes some maturity and some guts to stick to who you are."
That praise was fired right back to Buck, who was starting his first game with the Mets. Niese said that Buck is the kind of veteran catcher who can improve a pitcher's confidence by default.
"He's outstanding. He called a great game," said Niese. "He's a veteran guy that reads hitters better than I've ever seen. It's always great to have that extra mind out there that sees that and calls the game accordingly. He did a great job today calling the game. I rarely shook him, if I ever did."
Collins didn't hear those comments, but he probably would've been thrilled if he did. The manager had said moments earlier that Buck had a huge impact on Niese's game, and he said that he hoped the backstop could have the same kind of effect on the rest of his starting rotation.
"That's going to turn out to be a huge acquisition for us," said Collins. "John Buck controls our staff as good as any catcher I've been around. One of the innings, they came in and he and Jon were discussing a pitch that Jon didn't make, and [Buck] pretty much said, 'Look, we're going to make these pitches one at a time. You've got to think about the big picture. Don't worry about the bad pitch.'"
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.