Mets shortstop Jose Reyes has paced the NL in batting average since early June, threatening to become the first player in franchise history to win a batting title. It is a quest that will resume Monday, when Reyes returns to active duty, for Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Marlins, following his second stint on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring.
With the Mets out of contention in the NL East, it is a storyline -- complete with future implications -- that should dominate Flushing throughout the month of September.
"If you win a batting title, you have to be proud of that, because there's a lot of great hitters in the National League," Reyes said. "You have to have a lot of talent. And not everybody has the opportunity to win that because that's not easy to do."
For so much of the summer, a batting title was not the only thing within Reyes' reach. Most pegged him as the NL's first-half Most Valuable Player, based on his .354 batting average and 30 stolen bases, his league-leading number of hits, multihit games and runs scored, as well as his ranking near the top in on-base percentage -- not typically his forte.
It helped that the Mets remained in contention longer than most believed possible, riding the apex of Reyes' hot streak to series victories over the division-leading Tigers and Rangers, among others.
But plenty has changed since then, and the fact that Reyes has missed a total of six weeks due to injuries has undermined any chance he might have had at the NL MVP Award. (Games played is among five guidelines listed on the Baseball Writers' Association of America's MVP ballots, which explains why pitchers are seldom considered.)
But so much still lies within his grasp. Once on pace for the most triples in any season since the dead-ball era, Reyes -- with a strong September -- can still break Lance Johnson's franchise record of 21. He can still set career highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And there is still that batting title, the potential crown jewel of his season.
"There's still a month left of baseball," Reyes said. "A lot of things can happen. So when I come back, I just want to continue to do what I was doing when I was playing."
Though he does not keep daily track of the leaderboards as some players do, Reyes is well aware that, despite his most recent three-week absence, he continues to pace the NL in hitting. Entering Monday, Reyes is at .336, two points ahead of Ryan Braun of the Brewers. The Reds' Joey Votto and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp also lurk within striking distance.
Holding them off will not be easy. When Reyes returned from the DL for the first time in late July, he hit .256 in 18 games before reinjuring his hamstring -- largely because he no longer demonstrated the plate discipline that had made him such a threat earlier in the summer. Reyes admits that when coming off injuries, it can sometimes take weeks for him to fine-tune his approach at the plate.
"In baseball," Reyes said, "no matter how many days you miss -- if you miss one or two days, or two or three weeks -- your timing's going to be off a little bit. That's the way the game is."
Then again, there is a reason that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez not long ago called Reyes "the world's greatest player." Typically lauded for his speed, his energy and even his defense, Reyes does not always receive adequate credit for his intelligence as a hitter. But there he is before every game, scouring video on a clubhouse television. There he is from at-bat to at-bat, making adjustments to opposing pitchers.
If anyone can hold onto a batting lead for one more month, it is him. And if he does, the reward may be significant. Once a lock for a nine-figure contract on the free-agent market this winter, Reyes has since seen his value drop as his injury-prone reputation has returned. Though there is no telling exactly how Reyes' injuries might affect his future contract negotiations, a batting title -- and the strong September necessary to achieve it -- would go a long way toward buoying his value back to its midseason heights.
Not to mention some additional advantages.
"If I have a strong September, that's going to be good for the team, too, because that means I've gotten on base a lot," Reyes said. "I'm going to be scoring a lot of runs for this team, so it's not only for me. It's for the whole team."
Mostly, though, this September promises to center around Reyes, considering how few Mets players have been intimately involved in a batting race. Cleon Jones came the closest to winning a batting title when he hit .340 in 1969 but finished third behind Pete Rose's .348 and Roberto Clemente's .345. John Olerud batted .354 in 1998, finishing nine points behind Larry Walker of the Rockies.
Fewer still have ever prepared for such a high degree of offseason contract scrutiny.
In that sense, Reyes plans to soak in the next four weeks: his final opportunity to enjoy the former without harping too much on the latter.