The last time left-hander Jon Niese pitched at Citi Field, he partially tore a hamstring tendon while stretching to receive a throw at first base against the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 5, 2009. He then collapsed when he completely severed the tendon during a practice pitch while trying to demonstrate he could continue.
Yet when Niese steps onto the same mound again Thursday night at Citi Field for the finale of the season-opening series against the Florida Marlins, he insisted his mind will be free of the incident.
“The last time I pitched off that mound I got hurt, but I’m not thinking about that,” Niese said. “I’m thinking about going out there and giving a quality start. … There’s really no second thoughts just because it’s here at Citi Field. I’m going to go out and treat it like it was any other game.”
Niese twice faced the Marlins during spring training, allowing five runs (four earned) on nine hits while walking five and striking out eight in 7 1/3 innings. Florida may only start one lefty-hitting batter against Niese -- reigning National League Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan. Still, Niese may have developed an equalizer to a righty-oriented lineup. He’s now incorporating a cut fastball to bore in on right-handed batters.
“The cutter is a good new pitch for me,” Niese said. “It’s an extra pitch to keep in the hitter’s mind and keep him off-balance.”
Technically, Niese is the No. 3 starter because Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez were pushed back to the next series against the Washington Nationals due to underperformance during spring training. Not that Niese is taking manager Jerry Manuel’s rotation order that way.
“Well, Jerry put it pretty good -- when it’s our time to pitch out there, we’re all No. 1 starters,” Niese said. “I’m just going to take it at that, and when they call my name to pitch, just do what I can to keep the team in the ballgame.”
Given the severity of his injury, which left him bedridden for three weeks after surgery, Mets officials originally did not believe Niese would be ready for the beginning of the season. Then Niese got on a mound for the first time during January’s minicamp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Niese immediately leapfrogged Fernando Nieve as the organization’s favorite to earn the final slot in the rotation.
“In the offseason I worked hard and worked every day and just tried to get my strength back,” Niese said. “I was going to go into spring training to show them what I could do. And, if they liked it, then great -- but, if not, just keep working.”
Niese, by the way, still is a rookie -- although he will have a hard time being Coghlan’s successor as Rookie of the Year considering Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward and, by June, Washington Nationals flame-thrower Stephen Strasburg should be in the division.
As for his leg’s health, Niese added: “It’s great. I can go deep in the game. That was a concern of mine in spring training -- how far I could go in the game, if it would start hurting me later in the game. But it feels good.”
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Angel Pagan is providing a valuable complementary role even while Gary Matthews Jr. gets the early starts in center field. Pagan delivered a pinch-hit single and scored in the sixth inning on Opening Day. In the clubhouse, he’s been serving as a media relations consultant for 20-year-old rookies Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada.
Although both young players, who are native Spanish speakers, can capably express themselves in English, Pagan has been sitting in on their interviews to ensure they are comfortable and not misunderstood.
“It’s my pleasure to help them. That’s why we’re teammates,” Pagan said. “I want them to learn. And I want them to understand that for you to learn, you have to mess it up. You have to make mistakes. I just want them not to be afraid when they speak English. They’re doing pretty well. They’re learning quickly.”
Pagan, who was raised in Puerto Rico, arrived at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., more than a decade ago with limited English knowledge.
“I wasn’t fluent. My teammates gave me the best help and I learned in like three months,” Pagan recalled. “If somebody did it for me, I have to do it for somebody else.”
Pagan isn’t a complete Mother Hen, though. It’s not like he kept tabs on the 20-year-olds during Tuesday’s off-day.
“No, no,” Pagan said. “They can survive. It’s just for the interviews. I just want to make sure they express it the right way. Sometimes you might think they say something different. I just want to make sure they say the right thing in the right way.”
As for his on-field production, Pagan got off to a quick start last season, hitting .333 in 42 at-bats last May, after returning from arthroscopic elbow surgery and before a groin injury sent him back to the disabled list. So what about not getting much of an early chance this year?
“My job is to be ready for whenever the team needs me,” Pagan said. “Last year is last year. It’s in the past. This year, I just have to be ready whenever I’m in the game to help the team.”
POISED FOR START: Alex Cora predicts Tejada won’t be overwhelmed when the 20-year-old infielder is scheduled to get his first major-league start Thursday.
“He plays with poise, and that’s very important,” Cora said about the fellow shortstop. “He makes some plays that really impress you, and he’s played before on big stages.”
The biggest stage for Tejada came in last year’s World Baseball Classic, although Tejada’s Panama team was bounced in the first round of the tournament.
“Yeah, he was a little nervous in that one,” Cora said with a laugh, referring to a Puerto Rico-Panama first-round game. “But he played on that stage, so he’ll be fine.”