The Mets activated Church from the disabled list on Friday and optioned catcher Robinson Cancel to Triple-A New Orleans. After his second stint on the DL because of post-concussion syndrome, Friday marked Church's first big league appearance since July 5.
But the outfielder knew he was returning to a team that was markedly different from the one he left. Church was sent to the disabled list on July 8 as part of a club that continued to hover around .500. On Friday, he came back to a team that has climbed to the top of the National League East standings in his absence.
"Hopefully, I can just fall right into it, jump into the flow of things, just help out," Church said before Friday's opener with the Astros. "It's all going to come. I've just got to be a piece of the puzzle."
And he picked up just where he left off. Church jogged out to right field to start the game, and when the first batter sent a fly ball his way, he had no problems using his glove to record the out.
"I knew that was going to happen," Church said. "First hitter, it always seems to find me, but as soon as that happened and I made the play, I felt comfortable out there."
During the rehab process, Church didn't suffer any physical setbacks, but he struggled to produce at the plate. The outfielder played an integral part in the New York offense in the first half of the season, batting .277 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs before he was placed on the DL on July 8. But during his six Minor League games, he hit just .105, and Church joked that he sent more bats into the stands than balls out of the park.
As he stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat Friday, though, the crowd gave Church a standing ovation, and he responded with an infield single. It was his only hit of the night, one of just four Mets knocks, but Church was satisfied with his performance against Astros ace Roy Oswalt.
"I'll take anything I can get," the outfielder said. "I could tell I was a little rusty, just the timing and all, but I like how I saw a lot of pitches, and on my takes, I was upright, right where I wanted to be. It's just basically like Spring Training for me."
And Church scored one of three New York runs Friday when catcher Brian Schneider sent a line drive over the right-field wall for a two-run homer. Church was the first to congratulate Schneider with a high-five and a slap on the helmet as he crossed home plate.
The home run was the fifth of the season for Schneider, but he has slugged three of them in his past five starts. And in his past 12 games with an at-bat, the catcher is hitting .325. Manager Jerry Manuel couldn't explain the recent power surge, though he said laughing that perhaps it was Schneider's response to the pitchers during batting practice.
As the pitchers shag balls during pregame warmups, members of the Mets' staff regularly move into shallow left field when Schneider steps into the cage as an ongoing joke. But when it comes to producing when it counts, the catcher has been the one smiling in the dugout lately.
"It feels good to be able to contribute offensively," Schneider said. "But I know my job is to be in charge of that pitching staff and shut down running games."
While Schneider is known more for his work behind the plate than standing beside it with a bat, his teammates have seen the kind of offensive power he can produce. Church, who also played with Schneider in Montreal and Washington, noted that the catcher always manages to turn it up down the stretch. And as the Mets look to hold onto their division-leading status, one more hot bat will only add to the momentum.
"It's always nice having him coming out and delivering," Church said of his teammate. "He usually starts to pick it up toward the end of the year, so it's a good sign for us. He's always going to be that dependable catcher, but he always finds a way to dig deep late in the season."