ATLANTA -- Asked to share the most encouraging thing he has seen from Jon Niese this season, Mets manager Terry Collins said simply: "The fact that he got through it."
That is no jest; the Mets have been legitimately concerned about Niese's durability for years, given his propensity either to injure himself or to fade away in September. But Niese did neither this summer, capping his season with seven strong innings in Friday's 3-1 victory over the Braves at Turner Field.
Niese was in line for a hard-luck loss until Lucas Duda -- on the ninth pitch of his at-bat, with a record crowd in a frenzy -- drilled a go-ahead three-run homer off Braves starter Tim Hudson in the seventh.
"The last two days have been pretty exciting," Collins said of Thursday and Friday, which saw R.A. Dickey win his 20th game and the Mets spoil Chipper Jones' tribute night in front of a sellout crowd.
For most of the game, it appeared as if Freddie Freeman's fourth-inning solo shot off Niese might stand. But Daniel Murphy doubled to open the seventh against Hudson, who intentionally walked Ike Davis with one out and struck out Scott Hairston.
Hudson then worked a 1-2 count on Duda, who fouled off three pitches and worked the count full, before crushing an 88-mph sinker into the right-field seats. Instantly, the season-high 51,910 fans who showed up for Jones' farewell ceremony fell silent.
"I was kind of nervous," Duda said. "With two strikes, his two-seam [fastball] has a little more depth and his curveball a little more break. I was just trying to make contact and he left a ball up, and luckily it left the yard."
From there, Niese tossed a scoreless seventh, a makeshift setup crew held down the eighth and in the ninth inning, Bobby Parnell quieted the seventh-largest crowd ever at Turner Field.
"Other than Freeman's home run, we didn't get anybody on base," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I know we got [Niese's] pitch count a little bit up, but he made some pitches when he had to and we didn't keep the line moving."
And with that, the Mets won for the seventh time in eight games, looking every bit like the team they were early in the season.
"I'll tell you what, it was pretty incredible," Niese said. "It was like a playoff atmosphere."
For Niese, Friday capped a season that saw him make significant gains in both his process and results, posting career highs in wins, innings and strikeouts, along with career lows in walk rate, ERA and WHIP -- the latter two by significant margins.
As recently as last summer, the Mets were concerned about Niese's conditioning and endurance, worried that he was packing on too much weight over the course of the season. But the left-hander underwent a rhinoplasty reconstruction operation last winter, which he credited for allowing him to breathe more easily during cardiovascular workouts and, as a result, to maintain better shape over 162 games.
"It just takes some time to get a feel for what you've got to do to compete up here," Collins said. "Everybody knows he's got the stuff. The hard part is to keep yourself from getting mentally fatigued by the end of the year, and I think Jon's done a great job of preparing himself."
"The biggest thing for me was being able to stay healthy," Niese said. "My goal each time I go out there is to put up a quality start, to give the team a chance to win. When I walk off the mound and our team has a chance to win, that's satisfaction for me."
Now, Collins expects six fresh months from him every time the calendar flips. When general manager Sandy Alderson signed Niese to a long-term contract extension that could keep him under team control through 2018, the GM admitted he did so in hopes that Niese would improve.
The results, Alderson implied, could still be better.
And they still can, Collins agreed, so long as Niese manages to improve his fastball command and changeup effectiveness. In short, for all his improvements, "the fact that he got through it" won't be good enough in 2013.
Asked more specifically what Niese can do to improve, Collins said simply: "You can always get better."