Bay's return represents hope for Mets

New York Mets' Jason Bay hits a three-run New York Mets' Jason Bay hits a three-run double as Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Travis Schlichting looks on during the eighth inning of their baseball game. (July 23, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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Jim Baumbach Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach

Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working

Seemingly traveling in the fast lane on the road to irrelevance, the Mets take a welcome detour Thursday night when a symbol of hope from yesteryear arrives.

Jason Bay, the Mets' prized offseason acquisition from two winters ago, is scheduled to be activated from the disabled list Thursday and will appear in a regular-season game for the first time since concussion symptoms effectively ended his season last July.

Can one baseball player possibly play the stopper role that the Mets so desperately need? Given how bad things have quickly become at sleepy Citi Field, those are the unfair expectations that will greet Bay. Welcome back. Please help.

Manager Terry Collins tried hard Wednesday to temper those outlooks, saying the worst thing Bay could do is try to do too much. "We need him in our lineup, but I don't want him to think when he gets back here that he's the guy," he said. "This is a team of 25."

But had the first-year manager admitted to wanting a quick fix to his big problem, surely everyone would have understood. Bay might not solve everything, but if only he could perform like the player the Mets thought they were getting, that would at least be a positive step.

"It doesn't matter what we say and stuff like that because we have to put it together on the field," Jose Reyes said. "But I think we can play with anybody. This is a very good lineup, top to bottom. We just need to put it together on the field."

And Carlos Beltran and Bay weren't on the field together too often last year, thanks to injuries. They were in the same starting lineup for only nine games, with Bay suffering his concussion in Los Angeles just two weeks after Beltran finally returned from his offseason knee surgery.

On the surface that games-lost-to-injury statistic might offer the Mets reason for optimism, but then you remember that Bay was a shell of his formerly productive offensive self before the concussion. And since Beltran returned last summer he hasn't shown any signs that he can carry a team like he used to.

So when the Mets finally put their Opening Day lineup on the field for the first time this season, what exactly will they be getting? The only certainty is that the status quo can't continue, otherwise this season has the potential to go down as one of the longest in franchise history.

"I thought it was important we got out of the gate [fast]," Collins said. "We haven't. I'm looking down the road now and thinking, 'Hey, listen, we need to put some streaks together.' "

Seeing Bay return Thursday night as the slugger he used to be is critical to that, especially because of how streaky he can be. In his first 20 games of the 2009 season -- his walk year with the Red Sox -- Bay hit .359 (23-for-64) with a .523 on-base percentage and .703 slugging percentage. Think these Mets would take that?

Beltran Wednesday referred to Bay as "an important bat in our lineup," and with good reason. Assuming Collins bats Bay behind Beltran in the batting order, as he was planning in spring training, Beltran stands to benefit the most from a productive Bay protecting him.

"That would mean I'm going to see a lot of fastballs," Beltran said, "and that's good for everybody."

That, of course, also assumes that Bay doesn't replicate his first season with the Mets when he hit only six home runs in 348 at-bats and posted a meager .402 slugging percentage. Bay also didn't homer in 53 spring-training at-bats, but who's counting?

Which Jason Bay will the Mets welcome back? Right now it's all about the hope that his mere presence represents.

Said Collins, "I wanted him four days ago."

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