Jonathon Niese might not be your stereotypical No. 2 starter, but the New York Mets will look to him to even the opening series of the season against the Florida Marlins on Saturday night.
The offense struggled, as many thought it would, against Josh Johnson in the first game of the year, but David Wright and Co. will look to have much more success against Ricky Nolasco.
The right-handed Nolasco is 5-6 with a 5.46 lifetime ERA against the Mets, and he is a game below .500 when pitching at Sun Life Stadium.
If New York wants to have a legitimate shot of getting in the win column, though, the bigger emphasis will be on Niese rather than Terry Collins' lineup.
Niese, who also made his 2010 debut against the Marlins, last pitched on March 27, picking up the loss against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The southpaw has been historically bad against Florida in his five starts, but he has one big weapon in his favor that should help improve his chances of success. He neutralizes the running game.
He's quick to the plate working out of the stretch. Even though he doesn't have the greatest pickoff move, the fact that he is left-handed helps keep opponents' wheels in check. He also relies heavily on his two types of fastballs, which also gives his catcher a better chance of gunning a guy down.
It seems like a pretty insignificant advantage, but know this: Niese has not allowed a stolen base in 34 straight starts, and that is a Mets franchise record. The streak dates to May 2009, and it's also the longest current run in the Major Leagues.
Three different Marlins swiped bases Friday, and it's pretty apparent that the running game will be a crucial aspect of Florida's offense in 2011. Omar Infante and Hanley Ramirez both stole bases on Josh Thole in the fifth inning, and Scott Cousins swiped second off the Pedro Beato-Mike Nickeas battery in the seventh.
Only Philadelphia had fewer prospective thieves thrown out in the National League 12 months ago. While the Fish won't run as much as the Mets, it's vital that an average pitcher like Niese keeps as many runners out of scoring position as possible.
Baseball is a game of inches where small adjustments can make a world of difference.
Niese, who was 9-10 with a 4.20 ERA in 2010, isn't going to have the kind of one-hit stuff he showed against the Padres last June every time out.
Niese needs to grab every advantage he can find, but he's not alone. It's something that will have to be a common trait throughout this team going forward if it's serious about being anything more than a .500 team.