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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Handling of Reyes should help come free agency

New York Mets' Jose Reyes #7 smiles after

New York Mets' Jose Reyes #7 smiles after scoring in the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field in New York. The Mets won 4-2. (July 19, 2011) Credit: John Dunn

It took 17 days for Jose Reyes to recover from a strained left hamstring that may have needed only half that time to get him back on the field. Why that minor Grade 1 strain took as long as it did speaks to the evolution of the relationship between the Mets and Reyes, as well as their improving chances of re-signing the shortstop this offseason.

One person familiar with Reyes' injury said that in other years, there's little doubt he would have returned from a similar strain -- or at least tried to -- in a matter of days, not weeks. A painful example was 2009, when Reyes, feeling pressure from above, attempted to play through a tear of his hamstring tendon until it finally snapped completely.

But Tuesday, Reyes admitted that both he and the team had played this one super-safe. "I don't feel anything for the last seven or eight days," he said. "That's a good sign."

Reyes didn't show much rust in Tuesday night's 4-2 win over the Cardinals. After some nice welcome-back applause, Reyes went 2-for-5 with a pair of singles and scored a run. He also turned a nifty double play on Albert Pujols to end the fourth inning.

"I got to be careful -- I'll get myself in trouble here," Terry Collins said, ever mindful of Reyes' rising price tag. "But it's quite obvious what he means. He just lifts the club."

There has been another kind of teamwork developing in recent days between Sandy Alderson and Reyes' agent, Peter Greenberg, and that continued Sunday when he ran the basepaths for the first time since landing on the DL. Though it was typical to have Alderson, Collins and trainer Ray Ramirez studying him during this pivotal test, seeing Greenberg watching from the field as he chatted with the GM was a bit unusual.

Even if it wasn't the official start of Reyes' contract negotiations, a little pregame kibitzing never hurts 10 weeks away from free agency. As much as the Mets are fighting to remain in the wild-card race, there are bigger things at stake, namely keeping Reyes happy enough to consider staying with the Mets.

That seemed unthinkable a few months back, especially after principal owner Fred Wilpon mocked the suggestion that Reyes would command "Carl Crawford money" -- $142 million -- because he's had "everything wrong with him."

A close friend of Reyes said that he had been "infuriated" by Wilpon's comments, despite biting his tongue afterward. Tuesday, he was just glad to be back on the field. "It's good, man," Reyes said. "I appreciate that from the fans and I'm going to continue to do my job here."

With more than two months left, it's impossible to predict where the market for Reyes will go. And could it actually help the Mets' odds of re-signing Reyes if he were to tweak that hamstring again? For Collins, who was thrilled to have Reyes in the lineup again, that was unthinkable in the hours leading up to his return.

"There'll be some times where I'm holding my breath," Collins said. "If he hits a ball in the gap, I'll be holding my breath to see how he does."

Before long, it will be Alderson's turn, and those will be some anxious moments as he waits to hear a number from Greenberg. But the Mets have made important strides in their dealings with Reyes during this pivotal season. If the Mets can come up with enough money to keep Reyes' attention, those efforts could wind up paying off big-time for both sides.

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