NEW YORK -- The discussions taking place in the home dugout Sunday served only to underscore Jon Niese's value to the Mets. Wary of the left-hander's escalating pitch count in his first start of the season, manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen huddled near the bench and decided that if Niese lasted seven innings without allowing a hit, they would remove their $25.5-million investment from the game.
Oblivious to this talk as it was happening, Niese walked the first batter of the seventh and allowed a clean single to the second, squelching his no-hit bid in an eventual 7-5 Mets victory -- the third act of a season-opening three-game sweep of the Braves. But if he hadn't...
"I'd have run back out there," Niese said, laughing. "It would have been hard to take me out."
Added catcher Mike Nickeas: "I'd have lobbied for Jon, too."
What might have been the most difficult decision of Collins' career never manifested, once Niese shed his immortality in the seventh. Following a 10-pitch walk to Dan Uggla that included multiple borderline pitches, Freddie Freeman grounded a ball through the hole between first and second base.
Even had second baseman Daniel Murphy not been shading to his right in anticipation of a potential double-play ball, Murphy said he would have had no chance to glove it. Nor did Niese have time to lament it. The next batter, Matt Diaz, lifted a fly ball to right field, where Lucas Duda lost it in the sun it for an error. Jason Heyward then smoked a double to center, plating two runs and ending Niese's day.
"Everything happened so fast there," Niese said. "It could have gotten out of hand."
Instead, Manny Acosta finished off the seventh, teamed with Tim Byrdak for the eighth and gave way to closer Frank Francisco for the ninth. In saving the game, Francisco became the first pitcher in franchise history to record saves in his first three appearances with the club, simultaneously moving the Mets to 3-0 for the first time in five years. After the Nationals lost to the Cubs, the Mets sat alone in first place for the first time since May 1, 2010.
"It's all-around good baseball from everybody," Niese said. "Our hitters are coming through and they're picking it up. It's just great for us pitchers to know that our hitters at any time can open up a ballgame. Our bullpen is fantastic closing games and our defense is even better. It's a great feeling to know that we're playing good baseball."
Offense was never an issue against Braves starter Mike Minor, who allowed a two-run double to Murphy in the fifth and sacrifice flies to David Wright and Jason Bay in the first and fourth, respectively. Ruben Tejada, who finished with a career-high four hits, added his own two-run double off Cristhian Martinez in the sixth, padding the Mets' strongest offensive output of the season.
Afterward, the Braves spoke of the Mets as legitimate contenders, despite their fourth-place finish in 2011 and ubiquitous predictions of similar gloom this summer.
"You tip your cap," said Braves catcher Brian McCann, who homered off Acosta in the eighth to account for the final margin. "Those guys put together some really good [at-bats] over there. It seemed like one through eight, they had a good game plan and they executed it."
"There was bad luck, but it was also that they just find a way," Minor said. "That's what good teams do."
If a culture change has indeed taken place in Flushing, Niese may be standing at its epicenter. One day prior to his Sunday start, Niese officially signed a $25.5-million contract extension that could keep him in New York through 2018, its value potentially escalating as high as $46 million. Given what some members of the coaching staff perceived as maturity issues early in Niese's career, the danger of that deal was its potential to make him -- or anyone -- complacent.
Yet in his first game after crossing the "t" in "Jonathon" and dotting the "i" in "Niese," the lefty arrived at Citi Field admittedly more amped than usual. Though he did not go as far as to say he wanted to vindicate his team's investment, some of Niese's confidants believed that to be true.
"I think actually he wanted to go out there and say, 'Hey look, I deserve what I got,'" Collins said. "And certainly, he did that."
Now, the Mets are looking beyond individual goals and performances, wanting only to prevent this wave from cresting. Though Wright, Murphy and Tejada are hitting with aplomb, Ike Davis and Jason Bay are not. In that sense, there is room for improvement. And another significant test awaits Monday when Mike Pelfrey, by far the club's most inconsistent pitcher last season, takes the mound.
But the Mets are in first place now, still undefeated, for however much that is worth.
"We've got a long way to go," Collins said. "All I want to do is compete. I want to go out every night and compete. That means pitch and do the little things that help you win baseball games. And in the end, we'll see where we are."