Although he has never had a season with a winning record or an ERA under 4.20, the New York Mets have rewarded Jonathon Niese with a new contract that could keep him with the team through 2018.
They're hoping 2012 is the season he takes a major step forward.
Fresh off agreeing to a long-term deal, Niese takes the ball Sunday for the Mets as they look to sweep the Atlanta Braves and open 3-0 for the first time in five years.
Prior to Saturday's game against the Braves, general manager Sandy Alderson announced the Mets completed a $25.5 million, five-year contract with Niese after the sides agreed to terms earlier in the week. It was New York's first big move since settling the lawsuit by the trustee in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and securing $240 million from a dozen minority investors.
"What we're looking to do is build a core of players that could make the Mets competitive for a long period of time," Alderson said. "And I think Jonathon fits into that mold for us."
So far, Niese has not proved worthy of big money. The left-hander, who made his Mets debut in 2008, went 11-11 with a 4.40 ERA last year and is 22-23 with a 4.39 ERA overall. He had career highs of 173 2-3 innings and 30 starts in 2010, his first full season in the majors.
"It's just an honor to play for the Mets organization," said Niese, who went 2-0 with a 4.26 ERA in three starts versus Atlanta in 2011.
New York opened 2012 with a 1-0 win over the Braves on Thursday and took the second game of the series 4-2 on Saturday. The Mets haven't opened with three straight victories since starting 4-0 in 2007.
"We realize we have a long way to go, but this locker room is filled with guys who believe they belong here," manager Terry Collins said.
Lucas Duda homered twice Saturday and David Wright built off a solid opener by going 3 for 5 with a solo home run. The All-Star third baseman, who hit a career-low .254 with 14 homers and 61 RBIs in 102 games last season, had two hits and drove in the lone run Thursday.
Wright, however, is 1 for 8 with a double and three strikeouts lifetime against Mike Minor, Atlanta's scheduled starter.
Minor opened 2011 with the Braves but was sent down to Triple-A Gwinnett after one start to make room for Jair Jurrjens in his return from the disabled list. Minor was back in the big leagues for good in August, going 4-1 with a 3.83 ERA in nine starts after being recalled.
The left-hander carried that success into the spring, posting a 2.25 ERA in six starts.
Although Minor pitched well after being recalled, his two starts against the Mets were not very good. He gave up four runs and seven hits in each, pitching 5 2-3 innings in one and five in the other.
Minor has a 6.75 ERA in four career starts against the Mets, but the Braves have won each contest.
Atlanta hasn't enjoyed much offensive success in 2012, getting held to four hits in the opener and seven Saturday. The Braves, 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position, haven't opened with three straight losses since 2003.
"We're not panicking," said Jason Heyward, who is 1 for 6 with two walks. "The first two games, it hasn't happened."
Heyward is 4 for 8 with a homer and a double lifetime against Niese.