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Mejia finds groove after rough start

The shadow of another pitcher in the bullpen no longer lingered in his peripheral vision. After another strikeout, Jenrry Mejia hunched over, pumped his fist and held the pose for effect.

Again, the 21-year-old was in the zone.

Not much has gone right for the Bisons -- and their parent New York Mets -- this season. Both teams are last in their respective divisions. On Tuesday, the Bisons (4-9) lost a pair of games to the Rochester Red Wings (6-6). Their losing streak leaked to six games.

But with Mejia whistling his fastball through 30-degree conditions, Tuesday was also a subtle reminder that better days may lie ahead. The Dominican Republic native overcame a horrid start to provide one bright spot in the Bisons' 3-1 and 2-0 defeats.

"I feel more comfortable," he said. "I'm throwing pitches for strikes."

Last year, Mejia's baptism by Major League wasn't pretty. Thrown into the Mets' bullpen, he struggled in 33 appearances with a lameduck regime. This year, the Mets are trying to nurture that howitzer right arm in Western New York. The hope is that in Buffalo -- dealing with the myriad ebbs and flows starters face every five days -- he'd develop into a legitimate option.

Against Rochester, Mejia couldn't have asked for a worst start. He had no control. Fastball after fastball, he walked four of the first seven batters he faced. Over his left shoulder, Jose De La Torre began warming up for the Bisons near the stands.

For one inning, the defects were obvious as Mejia gave up his first two runs of the season.

"He has a big-league arm and flashes of a breaking pitch," said one National League scout in the press box. "But until he commands his fastball, he isn't doing anything."

Quickly, Mejia settled down. And for 5 2/3 innings in the first of Tuesday's two seven-inning games, he was mostly dominant. The sturdy 6-footer struck out six, didn't walk another batter and tossed a three-hitter -- yielding three runs, two earned. Taming his fastball and toying with a cutter, Mejia found his groove.

Bisons manager Tim Teufel was close to pulling the plug that first inning. Instead, he let Mejia fight through it. That was part of this master plan all along. So even though Buffalo lost again, he is encouraged in his new ace. After throwing 12 2/3 scoreless innings his first two outings, Mejia learned another lesson in his third.

"I liked the way he battled, I like the way he overcame," Teufel said. "He ended up going deep into the game. Being able to withstand that first inning, his confidence should be pretty high."

This is what stood out most to the scout watching on.

"If anything, he's confident," the NL scout said. "He's aggressive and confident. He handled adversity well and didn't panic."

Problems at the plate persisted for the Bisons. In Game One, Rochester's Anthony Swarzak mystified batters in a complete-game four-hitter. And in Game Two, the Bisons were shut out. The lone run of the day came from Jason Pridie, a leadoff homer. The Herd's offense is sorely lacking bite. As the third-worst batting team in the International League, Buffalo has been held to less than three runs in nine of 13 games.

To survive this funk, quality pitching is paramount. With Boof Bonser on the disabled list and Dillon Gee with the Mets, Mejia could stick around in Buffalo for a while. Good news for a hurting offense. And good news for a young pitcher that needs experience.

By the time another pitcher was warming up in the bullpen in Game One, Mejia was locked in.

Sleeveless, he knifed a 91-mph fastball through the icy wind and gave his team a chance. He lost, sure, but it was hard to tell. Mejia (1-1) was relieved in the sixth after 92 pitches and exited the field with a calm confidence.

Mejia took his hat off and pointed to the sky. Another promotion would be great, but he's content right here.

"I like to start," he said. "I like working. If they call me to the big leagues, I'll do it. But I like to start."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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Rochester 3-2

Bisons 1-0

Fast pitch: Offense sputters with just one run and nine hits in two games combined. ... Pridie blasts his third homer for the Herd. After rough first inning, Mejia finishes strong with six strikeouts.

Fast Fact: Nieuwenhuis extends hit streak to nine games.

Next game: Today vs. Rochester, 1:05 p.m. in Coca-Cola Field (Kids Week, $6 tickets)

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