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Pitchers lead Mets' surge ; Lefty Niese does his part as starters go on 16-3 run

The New York Mets have climbed into the thick of the National League race for several reasons. David Wright has snapped his strikeout problems to have a white-hot June and lead a diverse offense. Closer Francisco Rodriguez keeps walking tightropes to save games.

And the starting pitching has suddenly turned dominant. The latest revelation has been lefty Jonathon Niese, who threw seven more solid innings in Wednesday's 8-4 crunching of the troubled Cleveland Indians in Progressive Field.

Mets starters are 16-3 with a 2.61 ERA over their last 27 games dating to May 17 -- the best ERA in the majors in that stretch. The team, meanwhile, has won six straight, 10 of 11 and is 11-2 in June.

New York is 17-5 in its last 22 to pull within a half-game of first-place Atlanta in the NL East.

The givens in the rotation are Mike Pelfrey (9-1) and Johan Santana (5-3). The surprises have been knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (4-0 since his callup from Buffalo) and Hisonari Takahashi (5-2). Niese (4-2) looks like a strong No. 3 man.

He was solid on Wednesday but it was a far cry from his last start Thursday at Citi Field against San Diego. In a 3-0 victory, Niese pitched a one-hitter and retired a franchise-record 21 straight to close the game. He joined Tom Seaver's legendary 1969 win over Chicago as the only one in Mets history to be one batter shy of a perfect game.

"I did not envision him being able to have a dominant game like that," manager Jerry Manuel said.

Niese, who was 0-6 in Buffalo last season before winning his last five starts and getting a promotion to New York, has added a strong cutter to his devastating curveball. He's won three straight starts with a 1.57 ERA after a mid-May start rehab with the Bisons following a hamstring injury.

"It's fun. It's a friendly rivalry, a friendly competition," Niese said of the starters. "I think it's great. If we keep throwing strikes, our rotation has good enough stuff to keep us in the game every day."

Niese retired the first three Indians in order to push his batters retired streak to 24 men before giving up Travis Hafner's leadoff single in the second. Shelley Duncan's two-run homer in the fifth ended his shutout streak at 12 2/3 innings.

"He's got tremendous stuff and it helps him when we get him runs early where he can relax and pound the strike zone," said third baseman David Wright. "He's throwing that cutter and big curveball for strikes and hitters can't go up there and sit on one or the other."

All this pitching is a far cry from early in the season, when Oliver Perez (0-3, 6.28) and John Maine (1-3, 6.13) provided regular nightmares. Perez (knee) is in Florida after refusing an assignment to Buffalo while Maine (shoulder) will start on rehab for the Bisons on Friday night in Coca-Cola Field against Indianapolis. He could supplant Takahashi in the rotation.

In New York, Takahashi and Dickey are drawing comparisons to 2005 Yankees Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, who combined to go 17-3 while filling huge holes in the rotation for a team that went on to win the American League East.

Still, it appears the Mets will make a deal for one more starter later in the year, perhaps Houston's Roy Oswalt or Seattle's Cliff Lee.

"We've got a lot of different looks and that's usually beneficial," said Dickey, who will start the series finale here tonight at 7 (SNY). "We have a big, strong power righty [Pelfrey] and a Cy Young-winning lefty [Santana]. A guy with a big curveball [Niese], a knuckleballer. We have a lot of different looks that help our cause."

Dickey has a 2.78 ERA and the Mets are 5-0 in his starts. He went 4-2, 2.23 with the Bisons.

"I came out of big-league camp earlier than I hoped but it was really a blessing as it turned out," Dickey said. "I got on those back fields at minor-league camp and honed my craft so when the time came to go to Buffalo I was ready to go."

Niese benefited from a 14-hit attack Wednesday as Angel Pagan had three hits and three RBIs. The Mets exploded for five runs in the third on six consecutive hits to take a 5-0 lead and were never headed. Wright's two-run double was the key blow; he's batting .404 in June, has nine RBIs in the last three games and has taken over the NL RBI lead with 52.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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