Late July game with Mets turned the tide for Pirates' Jon Niese
February 18, 2016 12:00 AM
New Pirates left-hander Jon Niese delivers off the mound during morning workouts Wednesday at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — Jon Niese, the Pirates’ whiskered left-hander, has a fresh tattoo on his right forearm that spells his baby boy’s name, Tatum Jeffery, in thin cursive script. Below the name is “7.24.15,” Tatum’s birthdate and the day Niese believes might have changed the arc of his 2015 season.
That day might be the reason Niese, 29, is at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., as the club’s No. 3 starter, the return for shipping hometown player Neil Walker to the New York Mets in December.
The Mets’ July 24 night game at Citi Field was supposed to pit Niese against then-Los Angeles Dodgers ace Zack Greinke in a rare battle of expectant fathers. In the end, one of them didn’t pitch, and the other wishes he hadn’t, either.
“I should never have played that game,” Niese said Wednesday.
Greinke bolted the night before to see his son born. The doctor back home in Toledo, Ohio, however, said Niese’s wife, Leah, probably wouldn’t deliver Tatum, their second child, until around midnight. So, armed with a plan and a private plane, Niese pitched. Poorly.
Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki later told reporters Niese learned in the second inning his wife had gone into labor. Niese admits his mind wasn’t in the game, but he went back out for the third anyway and served up a leadoff homer, a single and another homer.
After allowing eight hits and six runs in three innings, Niese was back in the clubhouse by the fourth. Even that wasn’t early enough. His iPhone pinged with a message from Leah’s cousin: “Call us!” He dashed out the door, headed for the plane and watched on FaceTime as Tatum was born.
In hindsight, Niese says, he absolutely should have skipped his scheduled start. “It [stunk] that I wasn’t there at the hospital,” he said. But there’s another reason, too, because in Niese’s mind, that July night marked a turning point in his season.
“That’s when it all went downhill,” he said.
Before his brief July 24 start, Niese had a 3.36 ERA in 18 starts. He had a 5.46 ERA in 15 games, 11 starts, the rest of the way.
“I think that’s the thing guys don’t really realize with sabermetrics,” Niese said. “If I wouldn’t have pitched that one game, I probably would have stayed the course, stayed in a rhythm, but that just kind of knocked me off.”
In an alternate universe where Niese didn’t start that night and saw his son born and finished the season with a 3.30 ERA for the World Series runners-up, well, perhaps the Mets would have kept him around instead of trading him for Walker and re-signing free agent Bartolo Colon.
In this reality, however, Niese is in a new organization for the first time in his career, and has a big role in the middle of the Pirates rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Niese threw a bullpen session Wednesday, working on his stride direction and strengthening his arm after a long offseason, and had pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Francisco Cervelli peering over his shoulder as he threw.
“He really cares,” Niese said of Searage. “That’s important. He’s easy to talk to.”
Last season, Niese, who owns a 61-61 career record and 3.91 ERA in eight years with the Mets, was part of a loaded rotation with Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Colon that at one point was shifted to a six-man rotation to limit innings and maximize rest. Niese found the downtime hurt more than it helped.
“I’m actually kind of relieved I’m not going to be a part of that,” he said. “I was never a fan of the six-man rotation. You just never really got into a groove or a nice routine. … They think the longer you go without throwing, the more rest you’ll get and the better you’ll feel. For me, that really wasn’t the case.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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