Niese closes in on rotation spot

Niese closes in on rotation spot

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Last summer, before his leg betrayed him, Jon Niese provided his manager a glimpse of how good it all could be. Jerry Manuel has retained an image of a young left-handed starting pitcher finding and fighting his way through big league lineups. The Mets manager appreciated what he saw to such a degree that he wants to see more. So it is that Niese has all but secured the fifth position in the Mets' starting rotation.

Manuel indicated as much without saying the words Wednesday. Niese had pitched two scoreless innings in relief against the Astros in the Mets' 5-2 victory. And that cameo appearance, his body of work in 7 2/3 other innings, his large curveball -- pitching coach Dan Warthen says it's the best curve in camp -- and the club's need for Fernando Nieve in the bullpen left Manuel with no alternative. As a result, the rotation will be 60 percent left-handed, with Niese, Johan Santana and Oliver Perez -- not such a bad thing in the National League East -- and 80 percent unproven.

Niese had left the clubhouse Wednesday before Manuel provided a qualified declaration/lukewarm endorsement.

"I kind of see it might fit better for us, as we speak here today," Manuel said. "As I look at it today, I would say it's still open, but he would have somewhat of an inside track."

Those words were followed by an acknowledgment that the club needs Nieve to work in relief, possibly in the still-unassigned eighth-inning role.

Manuel was more direct in subsequent remarks, making a stronger case for Nieve in the bullpen, even though the club and scouts have wondered about Nieve's secondary pitches.

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Niese, 23, has made five starts in the big leagues, three of them last summer before he ruptured the hamstring tendon in his right leg on Aug. 5. He produced a 1-1 record and 4.21 ERA in the five starts last year, after posting a 1-1 record and 7.07 ERA in two starts in 2008.

In four Grapefruit League appearances -- two in relief -- this spring, Niese has allowed 12 hits and four walks in 9 2/3 innings. He hadn't pitched in relief since 2005, his first season as a professional.

"He was pretty impressive when we called him up last year," Manuel said. "I haven't seen anything different from him [in exhibition competition]."

"I think his time has come," Warthen said last week, without reference to the rotation. "He's done his growing and his learning. Now it's time to do his pitching."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.