PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Shortly after Carlos Beltran arrived for spring training in 2008, he sat on the dugout bench here at Digital Domain Park -- it was Tradition Field back then -- and famously proclaimed the Mets as "the team to beat."
Times have changed.
When Jason Bay showed up Thursday, he plopped down on the same spot, let the scrum of reporters gather 'round and delivered a more modest prediction for the 2012 campaign, as really only Bay can.
"Are we the No. 1 favorite for the division? Probably not," Bay said. "But I think it's not out of the realm of truth that we can be pretty good."
Not exactly tabloid fodder, but Bay will help determine just how good the Mets are in 2012 as he enters Year Three of his four-year, $66-million contract. Terry Collins plans to bat Bay fifth, sandwiched between cleanup hitter Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, so the manager is going to need something more substantial than his .386 slugging percentage while in a Mets uniform.
Or as Collins puts it, "I want him to be himself. I think Jason Bay is going to be Jason Bay."
Sounds simple, right? But Bay spent his first two years as a Met essentially chasing his tail in an effort to rediscover the stance and swing that led to his career-best numbers with the Red Sox. A season-ending concussion in 2010 deepened his problems, and when he tried to self-correct during spring training last year, those supposed adjustments derailed him until September.
It was in that final month that Bay chose to scrap everything he had tried to do and went back to being, well, himself. In 20 games, he batted .313 with a .392 on-base percentage, .563 slugging percentage, seven doubles, three homers and 13 RBIs.
Encouraged by that offensive spike and a better vibe at the plate, Bay spent this winter with a "tee-type contraption" in his garage and worked on bottling that good feeling.
"The first year I came in, I was the new guy," Bay said. "Last year, I was coming off the concussion. Now I'm not working on anything new -- just trying to do what I've always done, and that's the way I'm going to approach it regardless of what's happened in the past. Just kind of move forward."
The Mets did what they could for Bay by moving in the leftfield wall at Citi Field and cutting it in half. That should work to the advantage of Bay, who believes his salvation lies in becoming more of a pull hitter again. But if he slips back into his self-destructive habits, he knows it won't matter.
"Just by default, it's going to help out a little bit," Bay said. "I don't think it's going to make the difference between having a down or an average year to a phenomenal one. It's not going to change my plan."
Bay also used the last four months off to heal a right shoulder that he said was banged up from a diving play in late August. His confidence, however, remained intact. When asked if he wonders about his future in the game, he insisted that is not the case.
"I feel like I'm a realist," Bay said. "If I didn't feel like I could do it, I feel like I could nip that. It's there. Toward the end of the season, it started to show itself. I've just got to find a way to keep it on. You believe in what you can do because you've done it for so long."
One thing is for sure: His self-deprecating humor is in midseason form. When asked what, if anything, is different with his stance, he smiled. "I'm hitting lefthanded now," he said. "I realized the other day that I was actually on the wrong side of the plate."