Before this year, Angel Pagan might have been playing farther back when Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick came to the plate with one out in the top of the third inning last night. Or he might have just assumed Kendrick's looping liner to short rightfield was a sure single and thrown the ball routinely to second base.

But this is the 2010 version of Pagan, and not only did he get to the ball and throw Kendrick out at first for a rare 9-3 putout, but Pagan just seems to be more "on the ball" this year, as well.

"I think what you have is a young man that is very talented, but at the same time needed to slow the game down," Jerry Manuel said before the game. "A lot of times we don't understand that until late in the careers, but he seemed to have got a grasp of that. So the game is not as hectic for him, out of control type of thing. It's kind of slowed down for him."

Pagan is having a career year, hitting .305 - .372 with runners in scoring position - with a .363 on-base percentage, 10 home runs and 53 RBIs coming into last night. He has more stolen bases in 2010 (28) than he had in his career coming into this season (26).

But the organization wasn't sure that he could produce those kinds of numbers or shed the dreaded "fourth outfielder" label coming into 2010, even after hitting .306 last season. "He had played on an everyday basis here at the end of last year and proved that he could handle that," Manuel said. "The question was, could he handle it on a team that we consider to be a division-winning club. So that type of thing, that was the next step."

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After Carlos Beltran had offseason surgery on his right knee that forced him to miss the first few months of the season, the general assumption was that Pagan would slide into the starting centerfielder role.

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But the Mets took out an insurance policy in case Pagan proved to be just a one-year fluke by trading for Gary Matthews Jr., a more established, veteran - and declining - centerfielder.

Pagan batted just .239 in spring training to Matthews' .286 and didn't start either of the Mets first two games.

However, while Matthews' spring training glow quickly turned back into a pumpkin, ultimately leading the Mets to release him, Pagan blossomed.

"He came in as a fourth outfielder, battling for that spot with Gary Matthews Jr. and he took off," Manuel said. "And once he took off, he's never let go."

After batting .243 in April, he posted a batting average above .300 in May, June and July. His production at the plate and strong defensive play made him a fan favorite, and despite a short-lived attempt to platoon him with Jeff Francoeur in rightfield once Beltran returned in July, Pagan is perhaps the Mets' most consistent player in a consistently mediocre 2010.

Said Manuel: "He has the athleticism to play at this level, hopefully, for a long time."