PITTSBURGH -- Jon Niese, Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Dan Warthen and Ricky Bones huddled together in a clubhouse room this week, five pitching aficionados looking to right a wrong. Niese was too good a pitcher, the group decided, to continue giving up earned runs by the bushel. His approach needed to change.
"I think we all feel that Jon has great stuff," Warthen, the pitching coach, said after Niese held the Pirates to one run over 7 2/3 innings Wednesday in a 3-1 Mets victory. "Sometimes he trusts his stuff more than realizing he has to pitch. Today, I thought he pitched."
Much of the conference revolved around preparation -- understanding what opposing batters were trying to do to Niese. That means understanding their own tendencies as well as his, then shaping a game plan around the combination of both.
For example: early in Wednesday's game at PNC Park, Niese and catcher Rob Johnson realized that Pittsburgh's right-handed-heavy lineup was having a difficult time handling his backdoor cutter, which he was delivering at will over the outside corner of the plate. Once Niese established that pitch -- or "bought some territory inside with the cutter," as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle put it -- he began sinking fastballs off the inner half, all but abandoning his signature curveball.
"I really didn't need it," Niese said. "Really, the curveball wasn't necessary."
That is the type of adaptation on the fly that Niese has lacked in recent games; using it Wednesday, he retired the first four Pirates batters he faced and nine in a row during one middle-innings stretch. After the Pirates plated their only run on Andrew McCutchen's RBI single in the sixth, Niese recorded his next five outs on seven pitches.
He had a puncher's chance at his first complete game in nearly two years, before Clint Barmes singled and Gorkys Hernandez walked with two outs in the eighth. Bobby Parnell and Frank Francisco finished off the game from there, with the former whiffing McCutchen on a 98-mph fastball and the latter retiring the side in order for the second straight day.
With that, the Mets wrapped up their stretch of 18 out of 25 games away from Citi Field with a 13-12 record. They had touched Pirates starter Charlie Morton for an early run on Lucas Duda's RBI single in the first, then two more on Kirk Nieuwenhuis' sacrifice fly and David Wright's double in the fifth. That was Wright's only hit in four at-bats, dropping his league-leading average below .400 for the first time since May 14.
No, it was not much offense. But it was enough. Niese was that good.
The left-hander's outing Wednesday came in stark juxtaposition to his previous start in Toronto, in which Niese allowed a career-high eight runs and four home runs over three innings. That bookended a brutal May stretch that saw his ERA increase from 2.81 to 4.85 over the span of four starts.
"My mechanics were a little off," Niese said of his Toronto start. "My stride was off. My balance was off. Everything that had to do with balancing my body was just way off."
"He was upset," manager Tery Collins said. "It's the worst game he's ever pitched in his life, so he should be upset. I don't blame him a bit. It's human nature to be disgusted with the way that game went."
So a meeting was scheduled with Warthen, Santana, et al, which in turn led to Niese's mound transformation. Rather than rely on his traditional fastball-curveball combination, Niese and Johnson studied Pittsburgh's hitters both before and during the game, determining that a cutter-sinker combination might be more effective.
Niese still had to execute it, yes, but on this day that was hardly a problem. Seemingly without issue, he managed to spot one pitch on the inside corner and the next on the outside.
"That's tough to do," Johnson said. "That's what Roy Halladay does with his cutter and his sinker on both sides of the plate."
To be sure, things are hardly perfect for the Mets, who are not so far removed from a stretch of five losses in a seven-game span. But the bullpen is improving, no doubt in part because the rotation has been so much better. And the lineup is hitting just enough for the Mets to translate those pitching performances into victories.
"It's location, location, location," Collins said of Niese. "He located his fastball on his outside corner, got them looking out there. That set up the cutter in, and he pitched great."