Mets win Opening Day laugher behind Niese
Cowgill unloads seventh-inning slam after starter's 6 2/3 solid frames
NEW YORK -- All winter, the Mets heard the whispers. They heard about how they would not be good enough -- how, in manager Terry Collins' words, they would spend this summer serving as "whipping boys for the rest of the league."
"That's not what's going to go on here," Collins clarified on the morning of Opening Day. "We have expectations here."
For at least one windy afternoon at Citi Field, the Mets backed that up against the Padres with what has become their typical season-opening forcefulness. They hit, fielded and pitched with aplomb on Monday, cranking out an 11-2 victory behind Jon Niese's strong pitching and Collin Cowgill's first career grand slam.
It was their 34th win in their last 44 Opening Days dating back to 1970, and it served as a persuasive reminder that the Mets are not resigned to their so-called fate.
"This is going to be a fun team to root for," third baseman David Wright said after his first game as captain. "Obviously it's tough to guarantee wins and losses, but if you're a fan of baseball, a purist, this is going to be a fun team to watch."
Wright may be the focal point of all that, now and for the foreseeable future. But if the Mets are to enjoy more days like Monday, they will need to continue diversifying their contributions.
Take Niese, for example. Forced into mound duty due to Johan Santana's season-ending shoulder tear, Niese responded against the Padres with quality pitching and an offensive bonus. It was Niese who padded the Mets' early lead, singling home Ruben Tejada with two outs in the second. It was Niese who walked and scored in the fourth inning, and Niese who singled again in the fifth, keeping his perfect on-base percentage intact.
It was also Niese who commanded attention with a slightly less perfect -- but far more significant -- outing on the mound. In 6 2/3 innings, the left-hander gave up two runs on four hits, striking out four and throwing 101 pitches.
"He has a little movement on some of his pitches and a lot on some others," said Padres leadoff hitter Chris Denorfia. "He moves his ball around a bit. He's a tough guy to square up."
For another example, consider Cowgill, pigeonholed into a platoon role before stepping onto the field this spring. Entrusted instead with a full-time opportunity in center field, Cowgill broke the game wide open with a grand slam off Brad Brach in the seventh. He called it "humbling."
"This was a special day," Cowgill said. "The fans were excited. It was a beautiful day for it."
The Mets scored their first run on Tejada's RBI double in the second inning, plating John Buck. Marlon Byrd and Buck then added RBI singles in the third inning off Padres starter Edinson Volquez, who gave up six runs and recorded nine outs.
San Diego's Opening Day starter departed after allowing the first two batters in the fourth to reach base, but the Padres found no immediate relief in their bullpen. Daniel Murphy greeted Brandon Bass with an RBI single, Wright added a run-scoring groundout and Byrd capped the fourth-inning rally with his second RBI hit of the day.
Niese cruised from there, retiring seven straight before Yonder Alonso led off the sixth with a homer. The Opening Day starter gave way to a successful trio of relievers, including 14-year Minor League veteran Scott Rice, who struck out a pair in his big league debut.
And so without any apparent hesitancy, the Mets romped in their opener. It was effectively over by the fourth inning, when they knocked Volquez out of the game. Any doubt evaporated by the seventh, when Cowgill hit his slam.
Other than first baseman Ike Davis, who finished 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, every Mets starter reached base at least twice. Nine of the Mets' 11 runs came with two outs, while the team went 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position -- a category in which they ranked 20th in baseball a season ago.
Chalk that up to a small sample size, perhaps. The Mets understand that line of thinking. But Wright also saw a team "grinding out" at-bats, gritting its collective teeth with two strikes. He saw baserunners scrambling for an extra bag, pitchers asserting themselves.
If nothing else, Collins said he hoped the Opening Day win would "establish some credibility" amongst Mets fans, generating the same type of buzz that surrounded the club throughout the first half last year. He saw enough on Day 1 to admit to genuine optimism.
"But it is Day One," Collins cautioned. "We've got a long way to go."