Luis Castillo has the third-highest on base percentage on the...

Luis Castillo has the third-highest on base percentage on the Mets and has struck out only three times in 55 at-bats. (Apr. 25, 2010) Credit: Kathy Kmonicek

Jerry Manuel has moved Angel Pagan, Jose Reyes, David Wright and even Jason Bay in his efforts to find a lineup that works for his offensively challenged Mets club. One of the few constants, however, has been Luis Castillo, perhaps the only player who fulfills his specialized role on a nightly basis.

All of Castillo's 15 starts have been in the No. 2 hole, where his primary job, as simple as it may be, is to nudge runners into scoring position.

Castillo's on-base percentage (.354) trails only David Wright (.405) and Bay (.388) - but he is making significantly more contact for the Mets, whose game against the Dodgers last night was rained out, resulting in a twi-night doubleheader Tuesday,.

Wright has a team-leading 24 strikeouts, followed by Bay's 23, with Castillo whiffing only three times in 55 at-bats. His six runs are two fewer than Wright's total and he is tied in RBIs with Bay at five. As Castillo showed Sunday, he also is a threat on the bases, contributing two steals in the Mets' 1-0, five-inning victory over the Braves.

"He doesn't look that fast," Reyes said. "People don't think he can run anymore. But he's got extra speed when he needs it."

Most of the time, Castillo appears to be limping. Nearly two years on the artificial turf of the Metrodome took a toll, followed by double-knee surgery before last season, and he often seems older than 34.

Maybe that's part of the act for Castillo. If other teams consider his knees fried, they won't pay him much attention. Infielders won't rush on ground balls, giving Castillo an extra step to beat the throw, and pitchers won't keep close watch - allowing him to steal a base. That rope-a-dope approach has been paying off.

"Because I've had a long time in the big leagues, I know when I need to use my legs," Castillo said. "I know when I need to run full speed."

Manuel understands that Castillo has only so much in the tank, which is why he'll look to give him a regular break, probably once a week. That's not an ideal situation for a player who is in only the third year of a four-year, $25-million contract. But it's reality for the Mets, who are squeezing whatever value they can from Castillo after failing to trade him during the offseason.

"If we keep him fresh, you'll see a game like you saw [Sunday]," Manuel said. "That's huge for us with the configuration of the lineup that we have now."

Manuel is talking about the Reyes experiment, which has sandwiched Castillo between Pagan and Reyes, followed by Bay and Wright. The Mets are undefeated (3-0) since Manuel dropped Reyes to the No. 3 spot Friday, but they've totaled only nine runs in that stretch. The manager still believes it's a work in progress.

"I've always thought it stretches our lineup a little bit, especially with speed," Manuel said. "When Luis starts to run, and he starts to put pressure, and Angel gets hot, and he starts to put pressure, and Jose is taking walks and he puts pressure, I think it can work out well for us because it kind of fits our ballpark.

"Hopefully, the guys behind them, the power part of the lineup, some guys make some mistakes and they can hit some balls out and give us some quick runs as we manufacture runs early with the speed."

That speed finally may be kicking into gear. After initially playing tentatively in his return from the disabled list, Reyes has a stolen base in each of his last two games. He got a huge jump off the Braves' Tommy Hanson on Sunday night, and his confidence is growing.

"It's coming," Reyes said. "I've got it now and I'm feeling a lot more comfortable doing it. I just have to get on base first."

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