David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
With Jose Reyes acting like he'd rather shave his head than bat third in the lineup, Jerry Manuel has put that plan on hold indefinitely, and even mentioned during the weekend that it may never come to pass. So as a Plan B, Manuel is eyeing Angel Pagan for the No. 3 spot as a way to lengthen a Mets lineup that, well, needs lengthening.
Something has to be done until the return of Carlos Beltran, who was in Colorado this week for a post-op checkup. The Mets announced last night that Beltran is "making progress" but is "not ready for baseball activities." In other words, the club would be ecstatic to see him before the All-Star break.
That leaves Manuel two choices. He can a) keep telling everyone that it's only a matter of time before David Wright and Jason Bay become bona fide run-producers again or b) take a more proactive approach, buck conventional wisdom and maybe save his job in the process.
Manuel has not given up on Reyes in the third spot, and he had to be encouraged after the shortstop went 4-for-5 with a two-run triple in last night's 4-0 victory over the Cubs. But Manuel suggested Tuesday that Pagan may beat him to it, with Wright likely batting fourth and Bay fifth. Giving Pagan some RBI opportunities doesn't seem like such a bad idea as Reyes and Luis Castillo continue to get on base while Wright and Bay keep coming up empty behind them.
Pagan has some pop, as he showed with Monday's two-run homer over the imposing 16-foot wall in leftfield, a ballpark feature that already has knocked down a number of deep drives this season. But Pagan also has an ability to find the gaps at spacious Citi Field, along with the speed that can turn a routine play into a game-changing one.
Last Thursday at Coors Field was such an example. Lost amid Mike Pelfrey's pitching gem and the latest episode of the Mets' baserunning follies, Pagan's hell-bent hustle on a potential double-play ball kept an inning alive and resulted in two runs. With the bases loaded, and one out, Pagan slapped an easy grounder to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and still beat Melvin Mora's relay.
"That was a key play for me," Pagan said. "Even when I'm not feeling comfortable at the plate, I can find a way to help the team."
Not even Reyes, at this stage of his methodical recovery from a hyperactive thyroid, is able to rival the impact Pagan can make with his feet right now. And by doing so, Pagan can create a spark for a Mets team that has appeared surprisingly flat less than three weeks into the season.
"I'm always, always aggressive," Pagan said. "I like to play the game hard. That's the way I've been taught to play. I give it my all every day."
Manuel, finally, is going to give Pagan that chance after previously splitting centerfield between him and Gary Matthews Jr. The Mets thought they were getting some Beltran insurance on the cheap when the Angels swallowed all but $2 million of Matthews' $23.5-million contract in a swap for reliever Brian Stokes this winter.
What they got, however, was an expensive bench player because Pagan has shown himself to be infinitely more valuable in a full-time role.
The numbers don't lie. Matthews is batting .185 (5-for-27) with 12 strikeouts and a .290 on-base percentage. Pagan, after going 1-for-3 with a run scored last night, is hitting .300 (12-for-40) with a home run, six RBIs and a .368 on-base percentage.
"What we'll have to see is how long we can ride that," Manuel said. "He's played extremely well."