When David Wright is given the day off, he knows he must make the most of it. That means, barring an emergency, it’s probably best for him to avoid pinch hitting.
“I know it’s only one at-bat,” Wright said this past week. “But the preparation to get there, it puts the wear and tear on my back where it’s almost like it’s not an off day.”
Yet there he was in Atlanta recently, spending the latter part of his so-called off day trying to coax his balky back into action. This is the game that the Mets’ captain has been playing in his own mind.
For all the talk of caution, he often has found himself doing what he’s always done. Every day, in one form or another, he has walked a thin line in his first full season of dealing with spinal stenosis.
Management of the condition will be an issue for the Mets until the day Wright retires. The nature of spinal stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal canal — dictates that this will never change. But after a full month of functioning in this new reality, the only given is that there is no telling what to expect every day.
“This is brand-new to us,” manager Terry Collins said. “We’ve got to give it some time to see what it’s going to be like after 50 games, 60 games. Let’s not get too caught up in the first 20.”
Wright, 33, has played in 18 of his team’s 22 games. When he’s been in the lineup, he has hit .236/.353/.417 with two homers. Taken together, that production is slightly above the big league average. Yet there are clear signs that Wright and the Mets have yet to get comfortable dealing with these new parameters.
Wright is striking out at a frighteningly high rate — 33.7 percent of his plate appearances — especially when compared with his career average of 18.6. In the field, he already has committed three throwing errors. He had six in his previous two seasons combined.
Wright’s arm strength has always invited scrutiny. Now accuracy has come into question as well. He wonders if his issues have stemmed from not getting enough repetitions in spring training, when the Mets purposely eased his workload.
“I know he’s frustrated that he hasn’t played like the David Wright of the past,” Collins said. “He will. Like I told him the other day, it will come. You’ve just got to give it a chance to get used to what’s going on.”
Wright, a seven-time All-Star, has always found solace in work. When his swing was out of sync, he locked himself in the batting cage. When he booted balls, he took more grounders. Not anymore. Because of his back, he must ration his pregame reps.
“That’s kind of where I’m at,” said Wright, who did not play in Saturday’s 6-5 victory over the Giants. “It’s really different for me to say ‘I have 20, 25 swings to work with today’ and kind of go game-speed from the first swing on. It’s a little different for me. Same thing with ground balls. But it’s something I’ve got to get used to. That’s the way it is. It’s not going to change.”
But Wright won’t ask out of a game. The Mets already have won games by 10 and 12 runs this season. In both games, he played from start to finish.
The road only gets more grueling. The Mets are in the middle of a stretch of 17 straight games without a day off. There still is much to learn.
Since spring training, he has grudgingly acknowledged that there will be days when his back won’t let him play. He already has trudged through instances when his back has given him trouble late in games.
The difference between playing through pain and risking long-term injury remains ambiguous at best. Has he pushed the envelope? Even Wright can’t tell for sure.
“Not that, I think, I’m aware of,” he said. “I’m still kind of gauging what for me is a thin line.”
Every mistake, every cold streak, has sparked a public discourse about Wright’s viability as a player. He learned long ago that it’s too mentally taxing to pay that chatter any mind. But years of playing in this cauldron haven’t made ignoring that chatter any easier.
“You want to play well for your teammates, you want to play well for the fans, you want to play well for the organization that you love,” Wright said. “But that’s not always the case, whether you’re healthy or not healthy. I take a lot of pride in what I do. This has been my life since I was old enough to remember.”