Playing Triple-A in dry Las Vegas a major challenge

Las Vegas 51's Zack Wheeler pitches during a Las Vegas 51's Zack Wheeler pitches during a minor league baseball game against the Tacoma Rainiers at Cashman Field on Thursday, June 13, 2013 in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / DAVID BECKER

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LAS VEGAS - From foul pole to foul pole, the outfield fences here rise to 20 feet, the result of a past effort to make this place slightly less hellish for pitchers. Yet the home runs continued to fly.

For the first time in recent memory, an experienced groundskeeper was hired in hopes of maintaining the field, which bakes under the sun and becomes yet another hindrance for pitchers. But little can be done about temperatures that soar to 120 degrees.

"The biggest thing I see so far is that there's no moisture in the air," said Kevin Moses, the groundskeeper who will be charged with keeping Cashman Field playable. "It's just so dry out here. The biggest challenge is maintaining the infield skin and the mounds. But everything dries out so quickly."

Once again, the Mets can only hope to make the most of a difficult situation. For the second straight year, the Mets' Triple-A affiliate will play in Las Vegas, more than 2,200 miles by air from Citi Field.

"This has always been a great place to play," said manager Terry Collins, who offered a diplomatic view.

Veteran infielder Omar Quintanilla, who spent part of last season in Las Vegas, echoed an oft-repeated complaint through the years.

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"It was by far the worst field I've played on, ever," Quintanilla said. "It was so hard, so fast, you never knew what kind of hops [to expect]. People were getting hurt left and right, even running the bases and stuff. I hear it's a hundred times better now."

Two years ago, in a game of musical chairs that determines how major-league teams and their Triple-A affiliates are paired, both the Mets and Las Vegas wound up stuck with one another. The sides agreed to a two-year player development contract that expires after this season.

The Mets will be free to explore other options than Las Vegas and aging Cashman Field, where the only batting cage is outdoors. Rochester is among the Triple-A teams with expiring affiliate deals. But Mets general manager Sandy Alderson deflected questions about what the Mets might do next.

"Again, we'll just have to see how things develop," Alderson said. "Let's face it, we didn't anticipate being here last year, so the last thing I'm going to do is speculate about next year. But we have a good relationship with the [Las Vegas] 51s staff here."

Alderson played down the logistical challenges of calling up players from across the country. He even suggested that there are "some positive aspects" to playing in Las Vegas and that it has been a "nice change from Buffalo," the Mets' previous affiliate in the International League.

"Any time you have to adapt, it makes you better at adapting in the future, which is what playing in the big leagues will be for them," Alderson said of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

Wally Backman, who will return to manage the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, hopes improved field conditions might help. Last season, pitchers complained about the dirt on the mound. At one point, workers discovered that some of the bases were set at the wrong distances.

Those issues since have been addressed, though Cashman Field will continue to challenge pitchers, which Backman doesn't believe is altogether a bad thing. Zack Wheeler survived Las Vegas last season, as did prospect Rafael Montero. This season, the Mets hope top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard can do the same.

Said Backman: "You find out . . . who can really compete and how they handle success and how they handle when they don't have success here."

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