Jason Bay had a simple explanation when asked during the weekend about his skyrocketing number of strikeouts. Obviously, slumps happen. But Bay's inability to merely put the ball in play nearly half the time was sort of alarming for a cleanup hitter, right?

Not to him.

"I struck out 162 times last year, so yeah, I strike out," Bay said then. "That's just part of my game. When some guys aren't going well, they ground out. When I don't do well, I strike out. That's something that I've just learned to deal with."

Looks as if the Mets will have to cope with it as well now that Bay leads the majors with 22 strikeouts (in 54 at-bats). Still, it's been difficult to stomach, and Bay apparently didn't feel like discussing it again after last night's 9-3 loss to the Cubs. He already was gone when the clubhouse door opened. The Wilpons spent everything but the loose change in the Caesar Club's sofas to sign Bay to a four-year, $66 million contract in January and let's just say there hasn't been much bang for the buck so far.

Last night, Bay stretched the longest homerless streak of his career to 108 plate appearances dating to Sept. 21. But the Mets could live without the long ball if Bay could dent a few more walls. His .315 slugging percentage is below that of Rod Barajas (.408) and Bay is batting .188 with runners in scoring position, leaving him with fewer RBIs (3) than Luis Castillo (five).

Even Jerry Manuel, who is careful not to poke his All-Stars, shrugged Wednesday when asked about the problems that Bay and David Wright are having at the plate. The manager was more forgiving with Wright because of their track record together. As for Bay, Manuel gave off sort of a helpless vibe before last night's game.

"I haven't figured that one out yet," Manuel said.

Manuel did what he could Sunday by sitting Bay after his 0-for-7, four-strikeout performance in Saturday's 20-inning game. If ever there was a need for a personal day, that was the time.

With the streaky Bay, there doesn't seem to be any shortcuts, but Manuel may need to get imaginative with the lineup. He'll stay pretty much the same for Thursday's game against Cubs lefthander Tom Gorzelany and then consider changes going forward, especially for Bay.

"I got to find a way to [have a runner on] first base where he gets that fastball," Manuel said. "I might have to bat him second. I got to find a way where he can at least get a shot at his pitch while he's struggling to get him going."

Manuel knows just how streaky Bay can be. Last year, Bay batted .324 in April with five home runs, 19 RBIs and a .490 on-base percentage for the Red Sox. In the month of May alone, he belted 10 home runs and 30 RBI in 28 games.

Then, just as suddenly, Bay followed up with an ice-cold July, when he hit .192 (15-for-78) with one home run and five RBIs in 25 games. That's the kind of month Bay is having right now - minus the homer - only his sense of timing is terrible as the premier free-agent pickup trying to resuscitate a Mets team that is desperate for a decent April.

"I've gone through these stretches before," Bay said during the weekend in St. Louis. "But I'm confident with the guy that I am."

That's expected. But for Manuel, scribbling down Bay's name in the No. 4 spot has become a leap of faith - and one that could end up with the manager falling into the abyss.

Fortunately for Bay, the Citi Field crowd has been as patient with him as Manuel. Wright was booed more loudly than Bay in last night's loss, even after Bay helped sabotage an eighth-inning rally by grounding out with Wright on first.

Maybe the fans were just happy Bay didn't strike out.