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COMMENTARY

All Mets need is more great days

September 21, 2008|Wallace Matthews | Newsday

Within 10 days, the Mets will either have redeemed themselves from the failure of last season, or disgraced themselves again. There is no middle ground here, no moral victories, no "nice try" award for finishing second. In assessing their 2008 season, it's either playoffs or bust, and even that is a case of drastically lowered expectations, considering how confident they all were that this would be a bounce-back year.

In some ways, the same goes for Jose Reyes, whose failure last September was interchangeable with the collapse of his team. Fair or not -- as Reyes says,"I don't play alone here" -- his bat is the piston that drives this engine, his legs the wheels that make it go.

So it is fitting that over two nights last week, as the Mets have battled the remaining schedule, the surging Phillies and the pesky Washington Nationals, it is Reyes who has set the tone for an offense that has suddenly returned to the realm of the living.

"He's very big for us," Manager Jerry Manuel said. "He's a very, very important part of our offense. He's really the key guy."

Only two years ago considered a serious MVP candidate, Reyes has certainly not had an MVP 2008.

This year, he has ceded that territory to Carlos Delgado, who since June has been far and away the most important hitter in the Mets lineup, and to Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey, who take the ball every five days and keep the team in the game at least long enough for the bullpen to take them out of it.

But lately, Reyes has played like an MVP, beginning Sept. 13 against the Braves, when his three hits sparked the Mets to a 5-0 victory in the second game of a doubleheader.

He followed that up with a leadoff homer Tuesday night and a double off Tim Redding to begin Thursday's game, leading the charge for what ended up a 7-2 Mets victory and a split in a series that started out headed for disaster.

Now, if only he, and they, can keep it up for 10 more days, maybe this season will not end up being Collapse, Part II, but Redemption, Part I.

"You hear people say, when Jose Reyes goes, the Mets go," Reyes said.

Then, perhaps realizing how that sounded, he quickly added, "Well, you know, that's true on any team. Your offense runs off the leadoff hitter."

Throughout 2006, as Reyes went, so went the Mets. The same was true for 2007, only in reverse. In September, the Mets plummeted, Reyes pouted, and October slipped away.

This September wasn't shaping much better for Reyes, who managed only six hits in his first 38 at-bats of the month, a .157 average for September, which made his .205 for September 2007 look like a hot streak.

But there was something different about this year.

For one thing, the Mets were winning despite Reyes' struggles, not losing because of them.

And Reyes, instead of sulking and loafing to first and hacking at pitches over his head or under his feet, was remaining patient and disciplined and confident.

He set the tone in that key game against the Braves on Sept. 13, and again Thursday, with the Mets needing to leave Washington with at least a split against the NL's most woeful team. He worked Redding to a full count before bouncing one down the third-base line for a leadoff double, and scored on Daniel Murphy's line drive that skipped over Lastings Milledge's shoulder and went all the way to the wall.

Going in, the Mets were 65-30 in games in which they scored first and this one would be no exception.

"For some reason, everybody else seems to gravitate to the flow that he generates out there," Manuel said.

And after greeting Redding with that leadoff double, Reyes opened the door for the rest of his team to waltz right in.

. Now, they will need the same kind of effort in the current series against the Braves in Atlanta because the Chicago Cubs, the Mets' probable first-round playoff opponents and dramatic victors over the Milwaukee Brewers in 12 innings Thursday, come in to Shea for four games beginning Monday.

Reyes had watched transfixed in the Mets clubhouse as Geovanny Soto capped a ninth-inning rally with a three-run homer to tie the game, leaped off the couch with a whoop and then headed out for batting practice.

"They got a good team," he said of the Cubs. "But we can't worry about them yet. We got to play well tonight, and against the Braves first."

For the Mets, and Reyes, all it will take to wipe out the memory of one disappointing season and one miserable season is several more great days.

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