PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - As the Mets played the Cardinals in an exhibition game Tuesday, something far more important was taking place on Field 7 of the team's spring-training facility.
Jose Reyes was playing in his first game since an intrasquad contest on March 1. Facing the Cardinals' Triple-A Memphis team, he played three innings at short, went 1-for-5 and ran like a man who plans to be on the field on Opening Day at Citi Field on Monday.
"We'll just take it one day at a time," Reyes said. "Tomorrow hopefully I can do a little more over there and see what happens next."
It was clear from the start that this wasn't your regular spring training minor-league game, and not just because Johan Santana was pitching (and getting lit up by the Cardinals' minor-leaguers).
COO Jeff Wilpon was watching from a perch behind home plate with WFAN's Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton. SNY, which was airing the real game, had Kevin Burkhardt giving live updates of Reyes' activities.
Reyes, who missed nearly three weeks because of an elevated thyroid level, was told not to run past first base on the balls he hit. Guess what? He didn't listen.
He fumbled the only ball hit to him in the top of the first for an error. That was after the Mets had said he wasn't going to play defense. In his first at-bat, Reyes swung and missed twice before sending a long drive to the centerfield wall. In the regular season, a sure triple.
But Reyes just couldn't help himself. He turned and started for second as the Mets' bench yelled for him to stop. He eased up and pulled into second with a triple-turned-double and then came off for a pinch runner.
"They say, 'Every ball that you hit you have to stop at first base,' " Reyes said. "I said, 'Oh, man.' It's hard for me to stay on first base when I see the ball all the way to the wall. I said, 'I'm going to go to second nice and easy.' "
He had four more at-bats sprinkled over the next three innings. The first two were a line out to right and a hard grounder down the first-base line that was ticketed for rightfield but was turned into an out on a diving play by the first baseman.
Reyes turned it on running to first in an attempt to beat that one out. "That's a good test for me," he said. "That means my leg's good. There's nothing to worry about."
If the ball had gotten into the outfield, would he have stopped at first? "No," he said. "I'm sorry, but no. Had to go to second on that one."
In his final two at-bats, he cued a ball to first and grounded out to short. After that, he went to another back field and ran the bases. "I'm just trying to get ready as soon as I can," he said. "I'm going to keep working hard . . . Feeling better than yesterday because I felt like I played in a real game. I feel good. Hopefully tomorrow I can do a little more."