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Niese tops Tigers, lined up for opener

LAKELAND, Fla. -- After facing a stacked Venezuela lineup in his previous start, Jonathon Niese found the formidable Detroit Tigers not quite as imposing.

Niese tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings, limiting Detroit to four walks and one hit -- a one-out double in the fourth by former Mets farmhand Matt Tuiasosopo. The Mets went on to beat the Tigers, 11-0, at Joker Marchant Stadium.

OPENING ACTS

A look at who has started for the Mets on Opening Day in franchise history.

Niese already is on line to start Opening Day in place of Johan Santana.

His next Grapefruit League appearance is scheduled for an extra day of rest, on Sunday against the Atlanta Braves in Port St. Lucie. Count every five days after that and you get March 22, March 27 and then April 1 -- which happens to be the opener at Citi Field against the San Diego Padres.

Despite organization caution as to not further irk Santana, it seems clear the southpaw will open the season on the DL.

Normally affable, Santana has been disgruntled during spring training, coinciding with the organization publicly faulting him -- arguably unfairly -- for not arriving at camp pitching-ready.

Team officials were not sure Monday what Santana had planned as far as throwing on Tuesday. That is a team off day, but a day the southpaw’s throwing program might continue anyway.

In Santana's place, Niese should become the 22nd different Met to start on an Opening Day.

“Anytime 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. Obviously we want Johan to be there. I’ll be happy to fill his shoes if he’s not available.”

Why Niese in place of Santana?

“The guy won 14 games last year, pitched 190 innings,” Terry Collins said. “He’s really gotten better. He’s growing up. To me, he deserves that opportunity this year. He’s reached that point where I think you’ll look up hopefully at the end of the year and this guy could be one of the top pitchers in the game.”

Niese said he was unconcerned about the four walks he issued Monday because he was working on his curveball, which is “not there yet.”

Said Collins: “If that pitch becomes effective, he can be dominant.”

“A lot of those walks came from pitches that I’m just trying to get working right now,” Niese said.

As for logging 4 2/3 innings, Niese added: “That’s what spring training is for. It’s good to get all that volume in.”