Niese developing with Suns

Jonathon Niese has struck out 26 in 21.1 innings.

Jonathon Niese sat in a visiting clubhouse in New Jersey last week, his workload complete for the afternoon and his unbeaten record improved to three victories.

Yet the 19-year-old left-hander couldn't claim to be completely satisfied with the performance. Though he held the Lakewood Blue Claws to one run on six hits in a 2-1 Hagerstown Suns victory, Niese couldn't get past the fifth inning, a barrier he has yet to crack this season.

"I mixed my pitches up well and used my fastball to throw a lot of strikes," Niese said. "They fouled a lot of pitches off and put me deep counts. That's why I couldn't go six or seven, and that's something I'm working on. I need to get past five."

Niese said he has quickly learned that professional hitters don't react and behave quite like the high school batters he was dominating at Defiance High School in Defiance, Ohio at this time last year.

In his senior year of high school, Niese went a perfect 12-0 with a near-perfect 0.09 ERA, blowing hitters away primarily by using a mid-90s fastball with good movement. The sterling performance led the Mets to take Niese in the seventh round of the June 2005 Free Agent Draft.

"In high school, I think a lot of guys are afraid," Niese said. "These (professional hitters) will stand right in there, and it doesn't matter how hard you throw. With pros, they're going to hit you.

"That's why, when I turned pro, I realized I can't go by the velocity of my fastball anymore. I've got to go with my change-up and curveball and mix it up a lot."

Niese has started on the right path. After pitching in seven games for the Gulf Coast (Rookie) Mets last season, Niese opened 2006 by beating Lakewood twice in the season's first month, as well as scoring a win at Lake County.

He has allowed a total of seven earned runs in 21.1 innings entering Wednesday's action for a 2.95 ERA, and has allowed no more than three runs in any start.

"He's thinking it out," Hagerstown manager Frank Cacciatore said. "He's got a lot to learn and he's getting better every day. That's really why he's here in this league. I think he's on track."

Niese often does not have to worry about commanding his fastball, though it can blip up as a problem at times - on April 22, Niese walked a career-high five against Lake County, and was out of the game by the fourth inning.

Most times, though, Niese will use his fastball to set up a developing change-up that features good late movement and a sweeping 12-to-6 curveball.

"At times, [the curve is] really sharp, and at times it tumbles," Cacciatore said. "He's got to learn to find the consistency."

After fanning 144 in 76 high school innings last year, Niese has struck out 26 batters this season. As his off-speed pitches continue to develop, those numbers should rise.

"Foul balls and deep counts; that's professional baseball," Niese said. "Something I'll need to work on is a putout pitch that's going to get them out, that they're not going to foul off. I'm still learning and working. I'm in the development phase of my career."

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