NEW YORK -- The Mets won't be going 162-0 this season. They're also probably not going to keep up their current pace, which would make them a 108-54 juggernaut. But even in Thursday's 2-1 loss to the Padres, the team's first of the year, New York showed some encouraging indications of how an underdog club could perhaps surprise.
The 2013 Mets will soar or sink with their starting pitching. They're not going to have a great offensive team, though they could have a very nice power core in the middle of the order. The bullpen still has questions. But even with Johan Santana apparently out for the year and Shaun Marcum's return in question, the seeds are here for a quality starting five.
And the linchpin of that rotation may very well be the 26-year-old Texan who returned to the mound on Thursday. Dillon Gee took a big step forward in 2012 before a blood clot in his arm sidelined him for the second half. In his return to active Major League duty, he wasn't at his sharpest, but still managed 6 1/3 strong innings.
"He pitched well enough to win," said catcher John Buck. "We just weren't able to come through [on offense]. ... I'm happy with the way he pitched."
Jon Niese, now the No. 1 starter somewhat -- but not entirely -- by default, showed big-time ability a year ago. Matt Harvey wowed the Mets' faithful again on Wednesday and has No. 1 starter potential. But it's Gee, a lightly regarded prospect who blossomed into a surprising, if unorthodox, big league starter, who could make the difference between the Mets having a couple of good starters and having a good rotation.
If Thursday's game is how he pitches when he's not at his best, then there's reason for optimism.
"Nothing really felt that great," Gee said. "But [I enjoyed] getting that competitiveness back, getting out there and trying to figure out how get people out when you're not feeling good. I think I did a good job of just battling and making some pitches when I really had to."
Gee is a rarity: a right-hander who succeeds in the Major Leagues without throwing hard. In 2012, he averaged right at 90 miles per hour on his fastball, not exactly the typical way of going about it for righties. He leans heavily on a changeup (which he threw extensively on Thursday) to keep hitters off that heater, while mixing in sliders and curveballs.
On Thursday, though, he didn't even do much of that. Gee threw 10 breaking pitches all game long, going almost exclusively fastball-changeup against San Diego.
"I think later in the year, we still have that breaking ball to go to," Buck said. "He got that far with only throwing his breaking ball [a few] times."
In the first half of last season, Gee averaged nearly a strikeout per inning, while slashing his walk rate from the previous year-plus. He keeps the ball in the park and induces lots of groundballs. He's not a sexy pitcher, but he's plenty effective when things are going well. And, it turns out, even when things aren't going well.
That's the kind of pitcher every team needs in its rotation. It's important to have stars, of course, but it's also important to have guys who can take the ball, pitch innings and keep you in the game. And if those pitchers have the upside to do more than that, so much the better.
The Mets have Marcum coming back at some point. They have the intriguing Jeremy Hefner in their rotation now. Zack Wheeler is on the way. There's talent here. There's promise. And if Gee is going to pitch well, it looks even better.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.