New York Mets center fielder Angel Pagan #16 beats out...

New York Mets center fielder Angel Pagan #16 beats out a bunt for a single in the bottom of the third inning against the Atlanta Braves at CitiField. (July 9, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

LOS ANGELES - Standing in front of a gray steel locker, looking as beaten as any Mets player, Howard Johnson was asked late Thursday night to explain what's wrong with his ailing lineup.

The spotlight doesn't find the hitting coach very often, but this week was one of those times, just as it found the Phillies' Milt Thompson a few hours earlier. Thompson was axed by the defending National League champions.

Heading into Friday, the Mets were 1-7 on this road trip, had been shut out three times and had a pair of lengthy scoreless streaks. The first lasted 24 innings. The second was at 17 and counting after Thursday's 2-0 loss to the Dodgers. To put that in perspective, the Mets had played a total of 77 innings through eight games, which included a 14-inning loss to the Diamondbacks on Wednesday.

"I've had some bad West Coast trips in the past," said Johnson, who played 14 seasons, including nine with the Mets. "I remember some really tough ones, but these things happen."

And how does a team snap out of these California funks?

"Somehow, some way," Johnson said. "Up until Jose [Reyes] got hurt, right before the break, we were doing a pretty good job offensively. When you lose a guy like that for a period of time, there's a little bit of an adjustment. We're trying to get him back, some other guys back, and trying to smooth our lineup out a little bit, to kind of find our identity again. We kind of lost that a little bit."

Bringing back Carlos Beltran and Luis Castillo at the start of this trip was supposed to energize the lineup. But the Mets are winless with Beltran and Castillo as starters (both rested in Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Giants in San Francisco).

Before those two were activated, manager Jerry Manuel expressed some trepidation about easing both into a lineup that had kept the Mets within four games of the NL East-leading Braves at the All-Star break. It's not as though the Mets could turn them into complementary players, either.

As a result, Manuel has scrambled to assemble a winning combination for the batting order, and he shuffled it again Friday at Chavez Ravine. Manuel moved Castillo into the No. 2 spot and slid everyone else down, with the most notable changes involving Angel Pagan at No. 3 and Jason Bay seventh.

Messing with Pagan seemed to be the biggest risk. Overall, Pagan was batting .307, with a .363 on-base percentage and .474 slugging percentage. But in 24 starts at the No. 2 spot, those numbers jump to .330, .383 and .546 respectively. Pagan also leads the regulars with a .391 average with runners in scoring position, which is what prompted Manuel's action and what might convince the manager to keep him in the three-hole.

"He has been probably one of the better clutch hitters that we've had this year," Manuel said. "So I envision if he can maintain that level of play, I envision seeing him there for a while, yeah. I would hope so."

As for Bay, it's more like baby steps in the seventh spot as Manuel tries to rebuild his slumping $66-million slugger. Bay joined Jeff Francoeur for early batting practice Thursday afternoon - supervised by Manuel and Johnson - with the idea of fixing a few mechanical flaws.

"It looks like he's made some adjustments," Manuel said before Friday's game. "I think you would hope that you get some instant results. But I kind of like where he is fundamentally right now. Results might not come tonight. But you hope for that."