The Mets are not off to the start they wanted in the second half, but left-hander Jon Niese continues to contribute to the team's efforts, posting a 6-4 record and a 3.54 ERA in 17 starts this season. His 83 strikeouts are second on the club to Johan Santana. Niese, who was born on the day the Mets won Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, recently answered some questions from MLBPLAYERS.com:

MLBPLAYERS.com: You're enjoying a good season. How do you measure your success so far?

Jon Niese: I think that it's been going good. I've been working well with our catchers, and the team has hit fairly well behind me when I have pitched. Getting that support is, of course, a good thing, and I think it has had a lot to do with my success.

MLBPLAYERS.com: Prior to this season, you had totaled eight starts over the last two years. Can you talk about your maturation as a pitcher at this level?

Niese: I feel pretty good about it. I made some early starts coming into this league, and obviously I still have a lot of work to do; I still want to improve. In all, it's been a good progression, I think.

MLBPLAYERS.com: Everybody wants to improve his game, everybody wants to get better. What specifically are the next steps you are looking to take?

Niese: The biggest thing, I think, is my fastball command. It needs to get better. My changeup is a pitch that I still need to work on. Overall, the key is to pound the zone, the key is to throw strikes.

MLBPLAYERS.com: You are on a Mets staff that features a number of left-handed pitchers. How much do you talk pitching or simply watch what they are doing when they are on the mound?

Niese: I watch Johan Santana all the time when he is out there. It's always fun to watch him pitch because he competes so well. He has a great game plan each and every day, and it's just fun to watch to him throw.

MLBPLAYERS.com: What does he mean to this staff on the whole?

Niese: He is the one who sets the tone. He also sort of helps set the bar as to what is expected from the rest of the starters on our club. When we go off of him, it's usually a pretty good outing.

MLBPLAYERS.com: Earlier this season you threw a one-hitter. How does that rank among your season highlights?

Niese: That was a fun day. It was my first shutout, and it just felt good. It felt good, and I felt good that day. But I've put it behind me now, and the key is to go and build off of each outing and to finish the season off strong.

MLBPLAYERS.com: You faced 28 batters total during that game while earning your first career shutout. Were you aware you had only allowed one hit in that game as the game was nearing its conclusion?

Niese: I really didn't even know until after the game. When I was out there I was so focused on the game. It didn't even really hit me until after.

MLBPLAYERS.com: You are from a small town in Ohio. How is the transition been for you in living and working in New York?

Niese: It is tough. It is a different world. At the same time, it is fun to play in front of so many fans. There's never a dull moment. I enjoy my home in Ohio, and I love going back there, but New York is a fun place to play. The fans are great.

MLBPLAYERS.com: You also grew up with Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley. How long have you known Chad?

Niese: Chad and I were on the same high school team. When I was a sophomore, he was a senior. He was the guy in high school I looked up to. Seeing him get drafted is what sort of motivated me to do the same thing. It's been fun to watch him progress into a big league pitcher.

MLBPLAYERS.com: Would you like to face off against him in a big league game?

Niese: It would be nice. It would be pretty neat. A lot of people back home would go crazy if that happened. Hopefully, that is something that happens down the line.

MLBPLAYERS.com: When the Mets won Game 7 of the World Series in 1986, you were being born in Ohio. At what point since you joined the Mets organization were you made aware of that?

Niese: I didn't know that until I got here and I was told. They let me know about it. I guess it's a neat thing, but at the same time, we want to win a world championship too. I doubt it will be on my birthday -- the season goes a little longer now than it used to -- but I hope to be playing baseball late in the season many times over the course of my career.

Jeff Moeller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.