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Spotlight may be worse for Michael Cuddyer than his knee

New York Mets leftfielder Michael Cuddyer looks on

New York Mets leftfielder Michael Cuddyer looks on from the dugout against the Chicago Cubs during a baseball game at Citi Field on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

'So how's Wright?"

The person asking was Manny Ramirez, the once feared slugger and now a roving hitting instructor for the Cubs. The initial conversation with Newsday wasn't about the Mets' captain, but Ramirez later brought up the subject of Wright, who has been on the disabled list with spinal stenosis since April 15.

When told Wright's debilitating condition has been slow to heal, and he's still in Los Angeles for therapy, Ramirez shook his head. He agreed that back problems can be crippling for a hitter of Wright's caliber, then pointed to another lethal spot: the knee.

"That's a killer," Ramirez said.

Well, it just so happens that another player, at the other end of the hallway, spent a lot of time before Wednesday's game also discussing his knee. That person was Michael Cuddyer, who was back from the doctor after getting two injections for his hurting left knee. One cortisone, and the other a "lubricating" agent to promote flexibility in the stiff joint.

"I just think it's kind of like WD-40," Cuddyer said, smiling. "Like an oil change in there. That's pretty much it. They didn't mention anything with cartilage."

That was some rare positive news for the Mets, along with the fact the MRI didn't show any structural damage to the ligaments. A slight strain is how Cuddyer explained it, in rather vague terms. But the last thing Cuddyer needs right now is something else to think about -- or physically limit him in any way -- and this knee ailment is both.

We can debate the merits of having what is likely to be a two-day breather for Cuddyer, who is hitting .125 (6-for-48) with 12 strikeouts and a .176 on-base percentage in his last 15 games. Sort of a mental health break, and sparing him a few more rounds of boos at Citi Field couldn't hurt. But as long as the Mets' offense refuses to show up on a nightly basis, we wonder if Cuddyer's implosion will continue from the pressure he's exerting on himself, as indicated by a .197 batting average with runners in scoring position.

This is not a new syndrome for a first-year player in Flushing, where the everyday challenge of fulfilling expectations can be a monster. Particularly among free-agent leftfielders. It's not an exaggeration to say Jason Bay's career was ruined at Citi after signing a four-year, $66-million contract. Partly due to injuries that included a concussion, along with the psychological demands of being a purported home-run hitter in a cavernous new ballpark.

Bay, as good a guy as you'll find in the majors, fought it for as long as he could, but ultimately was released in what amounted to a buyout with a year left on his deal. His totals for three seasons: .234/.318/.369 with 26 homers and 124 RBIs in 288 games.

We may be getting a little ahead of ourselves here with the Cuddyer-Bay comparisons after 78 games. But other than the position, the symptoms appear similar. And both were "big" offseason signings, even if Cuddyer's two-year, $21-million deal is only a fraction of Bay's haul.

Cuddyer is a 15-year veteran with experience in two lesser markets, Minnesota and Colorado. But he's also been on six playoff teams, so Cuddyer should be OK with the spotlight. The difference here, however, is the lack of experienced talent to share it with him. And always feeling like you have to be "the guy" can swallow up a player.

"Every single at-bat, that's what we're guarding against," Cuddyer said. "And for me personally, I've got to do a better job of that."

Cuddyer is chasing more pitches out of the strike zone, at a 38.6-percent clip, well above his 31.8-percent career mark, according to Pitch f/x. That's a clear indication of pressing at the plate, something that Cuddyer's pal Wright also has struggled with in the past when he's felt alone in the Mets' barren lineup. It's ironic that as much as Wright campaigned for Cuddyer, they've played together for less than two weeks.

"The only thing I went in here expecting to do was win games," Cuddyer said.

With Wright down, and Cuddyer hobbling, it's becoming harder than he probably imagined.

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