CINCINNATI -- Five months and 23 days ago, Jon Niese did not seem out of place as the Mets' Opening Day starter. Johan Santana was injured. Matt Harvey not yet fully established. Dillon Gee was coming off surgery. So the nod went to a 26-year-old pitcher still enjoying the afterglow of by far his best season as a big leaguer.
What happened next was a reminder of how cruelly unpredictable baseball can be. At an age when most players hit their physical primes, Niese struggled for three months, discovered he had a partially torn rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder and did not appear in another game until August. The Mets have since breathed a collective sigh of relief as Niese has rediscovered his 2012 form, perhaps capping his season Tuesday with seven innings of two-run ball in a 4-2 victory over the playoff-bound Reds.
"Shoulder problems are scary things," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "Doctors will all tell you, they can fix those elbows. Shoulders are an issue. So to have Jon be where he's at today is a big step for us."
The Mets are still deciding whether Tuesday's effort will be Niese's final start of the season, not wanting to put too much late-season stress on his shoulder. Niese indicated after the game that he will probably pitch again Sunday, though he and Collins have yet to discuss the issue.
Either way, barring catastrophe in five days' time, the Mets' renewed optimism regarding their Opening Day starter is warranted.
Since returning from the disabled list, Niese has gone 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA, 54 strikeouts and 13 walks in 60 innings. Compare that to his 3-6 record, 4.32 ERA, 49 strikeouts and 33 walks in 77 innings prior to injury.
"When my shoulder is healthy, for the most part I think I can throw the ball where I want to and minimize the mistakes," Niese said. "Hopefully, I can keep that up."
One of his best starts of the year came Tuesday with his family -- Niese is a Defiance, Ohio, native -- in attendance. Despite a shaky beginning that saw three of the first four Reds batters rap out hits against him, Niese struck out six and walked one over seven innings, allowing eight hits.
"You always hate to face a pitcher this late in the season that's one game under .500," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Niese, referring to the left-hander's 7-8 record heading into the game. "You know they're going to pitch their guts out to try to get back to .500, especially if there is a chance for it to be the last start of the year. You have to give it to him, he threw an outstanding ballgame against us."
Center fielder Juan Lagares both helped and hurt Niese at separate points along the way. In the first inning, Lagares threw out Shin-Soo Choo attempting to score from second base on Ryan Ludwick's single, allowing Niese to escape the inning unharmed. But in the fifth, Lagares misplayed Choo's leadoff fly ball into a triple, allowing him to come home on Joey Votto's double play.
The other run against Niese came in the second inning, when Todd Frazier doubled and scored on Devin Mesoraco's groundout.
It helped that Niese spent most of the night pitching with a sizable lead, thanks to Daniel Murphy's three-run homer off Mike Leake in the second. The Mets knocked Leake out of the game with a six-hit attack that inning, which included Wilfredo Tovar's RBI single.
With fatigued interim closer LaTroy Hawkins unavailable, Collins turned in the ninth inning to rookie Vic Black, who nailed down his first save in the heat of a pennant race.
"You want to break people's hearts," Black said, explaining that he disliked the Reds growing up due to family allegiances. "You want to get the feel for it and know what it's like, because we expect to be in contention at some point as well. So to be able to get that feeling of knowing how to play these games and what to do in these situations and these environments is huge."
Everything is "huge" for the Mets if it carries 2014 implications. So yes, Black's save qualified. And certainly, Niese's strong outing did, too.
"Ever since he's come back, he's thrown the ball as good as I've ever seen Jon Niese throw it in the time that I've been here, and he's pitched some great baseball games," Collins said. "His command, his pace, his velocity's up. I think it's all due to when he was down, he worked his butt off to make sure he would strengthen his shoulder. And he's thrown great."