Why We Watch: Jonathon Niese, From Defiance

Jonathon Niese is not quite an ace, at least as it's usually understood. He's something quieter than that, if only differently great.
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Whatever and whoever we are at heart, fans act like spoiled children. We are sulky and greedy and forever whining for new toys; we want mommy and daddy to draft us an overhyped quarterback, to spend money they don't have on a declining slugger, to trade last year's superstar for next year's prospects. And then once the toy is ours, we want to rub dirt in its hair and bash it against the ground, yowling that it's broken until we get something new.

The New York Mets' toy chest overflows with pitchers—from mint condition Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom to the slightly scuffed Zack Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia. Still in the box is Noah "Thor" Syndergaard—his nickname drawn from Hollywood's most toyetic franchise—and on the shelf is Matt Harvey, so fragile and so valuable that we aren't allowed play with him until we're older. Rich with pitchers, we celebrate by bragging on them, complaining about them, and asking for more.

Somewhere in the closet is the forgotten stuffed animal Jonathon Niese, a left-handed starter whose shine wore off so long ago, it's hard to remember if he ever had any. Like all ungrateful children, we do not love him like we should.

***

I went to Citi Field three times in April, with each trip hoping to see one of the promising young arms I'd spent winter dreaming of—that, or the blob-like majesty of Bartolo Colón. But each time, the scheduling gods gave me Jon Niese instead, a disappointment only because in April, I want novelty, and Niese is a show I've seen before.

An alumnus of the marvelously-named Defiance High School, Niese was rushed to the big leagues in the black September of 2008, when the Mets were scrambling to avoid a second-consecutive late-season implosion. (They failed.) Old beat reports suggest that he came in under the hype radar—"average velocity," said his pitching coach; "above-average curveball," said a teammate—and he has remained unfussily, dependably average.

Over six solid seasons, he has made the news only twice: when he let Carlos Beltran buy him a new nose, and when he became the only Met besides David Wright to win a long-term deal from the miserly and quite possibly broke people in charge. In a franchise starved for consistency, Niese is consistent-ish, and for that he has been asked to stick around.

So for every one of his home starts, I was in the stands, enduring the vile weather that is springtime in Citi Field. From the upper deck, I glowered at my Mets, intoning the mantra that keeps me steady from pitch to pitch.

"Come on, you stupid sons of bitches, don't fuck this up," I muttered. "You goddamned morons—oh, fuck this piece of shit team!"

These quiet curses were not spat at Niese, simply because I wasn't paying attention. I honestly don't remember a single thing he did during those three April starts. But as the Citi Field gale swept hotdog wrappers onto the field and knocked off Michael Wacha's hat, Niese was steadily effective and seemingly content to pitch gems even if no one was paying attention. Here was Jon Niese, cold weather ace, so spectacular that it somehow became difficult to notice.

***

It's May 5th, and the Mets are in the marzipan wastes of Marlins Park. When Niese takes the ball, I grumble along, imploring him to get it over with, to not fuck things up, to get off the screen and let the Mets attempt to hit. My grouchiness blinds me to his biting cutter and his curveball, which today breaks as tightly as a bootlegger's turn. I do not notice that, one month into the season, his ERA has slipped below 2.00. But my ears prick up at the words of Gary Cohen:

"[Niese is] no mudder. He's a thoroughbred."

At this, my profane muttering stops. My shoulders relax. A thoroughbred, eh? He does not bulldoze like Harvey, electrify like Mejia or charm like Colon. His nose, despite Beltran's generosity, remains mashed against his face. There is something about him that reminds me of an equipment manager for a small-time college football program. But he is taking the Marlins apart with the grim efficiency of a butcher breaking down a pig, and it is all suddenly and quietly beautiful to watch.

In the seventh, the thoroughbred runs into trouble. With two men on and one out, Niese stares at Marcell Ozuna, a Marlins outfielder on an early-season tear of his own. My curses catch in my throat.

"I want Niese to finish this inning," grunts Keith Hernandez, and I agree. Keith wants Niese left in for the sake of Old Time Baseball, but I want him to face Ozuna so that the brilliance I took so long to notice can go on a little longer. In the six years I've watched this man pitch, the Mets have devised endless new ways to torture me, but Jon Niese has never done me any harm. As he rotates the ball in his glove, I do not grumble, I do not swear. I trust him, as I should have done all along.

Starting with that same fearsome curve, Niese takes just four pitches to get a double play. The threat is over. The thoroughbred has prevailed.

Of course, there are more than seven innings in a baseball game, and the Mets manage to lose as soon as Niese steps off the field. This is infuriating, but not his fault. At this moment, in 2014, he is the best pitcher on a mostly rotten team. This sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t.

Image via Random Baseball Stuff.


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