LAS VEGAS -- As the Mets packed their bags for Vegas late last week, their starting rotation was clearly taking shape. Jon Niese was healthy after an early-spring shoulder scare, primed for Opening Day. Daisuke Matsuzaka was busy locking down the fifth-starter's job, and Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee and Zack Wheeler were falling in line between those two. It was becoming a matter of order, not personnel.
But the situation changed dramatically when Niese left Sunday's game against the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., with left elbow discomfort. The Mets sent Niese back to New York, where he will receive an MRI exam on Monday morning -- his second plane ride and hospital visit in three weeks.
"It's the Spring Training from hell," Niese said. "I've never experienced anything like this, and it's just frustrating."
Niese said he began experiencing discomfort that "felt like a stinger" in the second inning, when he allowed two runs on three hits and a walk. Acting manager Bob Geren decided to remove Niese from the game after the inning.
"I told them I felt fine, but obviously they don't want to take any chances," Niese said, noting that he first felt discomfort in his elbow during an intrasquad game last week, which was his first game action since a bout of shoulder pain in late February. "[I] just kind of hyperextended it and irritated it some. It's the back of the elbow, which is good. I had a great bullpen session in between now and my last start and didn't feel anything. I thought it was behind me. It just kind of flared up again. We'll see how it feels tomorrow."
Niese's arm troubles first began last summer, when he partially tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Though he avoided surgery, Niese missed nearly two months.
Spending his winter strengthening the muscles in his shoulder, Niese was surprised when he began feeling discomfort again in the joint earlier this spring. But an MRI showed no structural damage, and after skipping a start, Niese made his way back to the mound without any pain.
Now this. After speaking with Niese over the phone from Las Vegas, Mets manager Terry Collins came away convinced the injury is not serious -- but that does not mean the Mets aren't concerned.
"Any time one of our pitchers has something, especially the elbow or shoulder, we want to get it checked out," assistant general manager John Ricco said. "He's frustrated because he's had a couple different things that haven't turned out to be anything, but you want to have this smooth Spring Training, and he hasn't had that this year. He's more frustrated that here he is, he just got on the mound a few days ago and now ... let's just hope this is nothing."
If Niese is not healthy enough to start on Opening Day, Collins said either Gee or Colon would take his place. The Mets could simply push Niese back to the fourth or fifth game of the season, or go without a fifth starter until as late in the schedule as April 12 if the injury lingers.
The leading candidates to take Niese's place at that time would be Jenrry Mejia, who gave up three runs in 2 1/3 innings Sunday against the Cubs, and John Lannan, who could also pitch out of the bullpen in the interim. Rafael Montero could make the team out of the bullpen, according to Collins, but not as a starting pitcher.
"The only thing I have to worry about is my job," Mejia said. "I can't worry about what happens to [Niese]. I have to worry about being there, being on the team, staying healthy to be the starter."
Such decisions will come in the next week and a half. Meanwhile, the Mets will hope Niese, who is signed through 2018 on a team-friendly deal, does not require anything more than rest.
"The positive is it's not his shoulder, but obviously as we get closer to Opening Day it becomes more and more problematic," GM Sandy Alderson said." Hopefully it's nothing serious, regardless of its impact on Opening Day."