PITTSBURGH -- As recently as 15 days ago, Jon Niese led all Mets starting pitchers in ERA. He gave up eight earned runs over his first 37 innings, establishing his place as a trusted veteran in a rotation full of younger, more high-powered arms.
Niese has since given up 16 runs in 16 innings, more than doubling his ERA from 1.95 to 4.08 over his last three starts. He allowed four runs over 4 2/3 innings in Sunday's 9-1 loss to the Pirates, walking a season-high four batters and allowing seven hits.
"The crazy thing is this is the best I've felt in a real long time," Niese said. "The results aren't there. I've just got to stick with the game plan, prepare the right way and I think it'll turn around for us."
Niese's game plan Sunday was to challenge the Pirates on the inner half of the strike zone -- something he did with reasonable success over his first three scoreless innings. But the Pirates began smacking his mistakes around PNC Park in the middle innings, most notably a hanging curveball that Andrew McCutchen hit for a two-run homer in the fifth.
"It was the wrong pitch," Niese said. "I never should have ever thrown that pitch."
Given Niese's track record of success, including a 30-28 record and a 3.49 ERA from 2012-14, the Mets are not overly concerned about their longest-tenured starter. But given the struggles of the other members of their rotation -- Niese was their third starter in five days to last fewer than five innings -- the Mets need him to find a solution sooner rather than later.
"I think Jon's been OK," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "I don't want to keep harping on it, but [the Pirates] have a nice club and they're starting to play good. So we've got to raise our game up."