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Church thankful to be healthy

Church confident looking ahead to 2009

NEW YORK -- Obscured in the blackout and blur of the moment and all the moments of concern, confusion, consternation and concussion conversation that followed, were these facts about one play that undermined the Mets' season and that of Ryan Church. When the front of Church's head and the knee of Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar collided at second base that May night in Atlanta, the Braves led by four runs and needed no more than for Escobar's relay to first base to arrive before Damion Easley for a doubleheader sweep of the Mets to be completed.

The Mets, as it turned out, would score all of three runs in 18 innings that night -- one in the first inning of the first game and the others in the eighth inning of the second game. They would produce 16 baserunners and strike out 16 times in 67 plate appearances. At the point Church singled with one out in the ninth, there was little to suggest the Mets would rise up to defeat the Braves. A loss was a foregone conclusion when Easley hit a ground ball to reliever Manny Acosta.

Yet Church slid as the winning run would have scored if the double play were denied, as if the game was in late Sepember, not May 20.

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"You play the game hard regardless of the situation," he said two days after suffering a concussion for the second time in less than three months. He made that statement so matter-of-factly. "That's how I was taught to play. You play till there's no game left to play."

The Mets fell one game short of the postseason for the second successive season. Their shortfall was attributed to a multitude of factors -- the late-season absence loss of Fernando Tatis, the ineffective work of Aaron Heilman, the loss of John Maine and later Billy Wagner, the purported inability of Willie Randolph to motivate Carlos Delgado, Scott Schoeneweis, Greg Dobbs, the invisibility of Delgado before late June, the absence -- virtually season-long -- of Moises Alou, Duaner Sanchez, the ineffective work of Pedro Martinez after his return from injury, Micah Hoffpauir, the woeful inconsistency of their offense, Pedro Feliciano, Jose Reyes' April and September, bad calls, the Phillies, one September swing by David Wright, Luis Castillo, the ghost of Rod Kanehl, the inability of Omar Minaya to import replacement parts, Jorge Sosa, the Brewers, the weatherman, the lack of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman and the jets over Shea.

Speedy start
Church's performance in numbers through May 20, the date of his second and more debilitating concussion.
Stat
Total
Games42
At-bats157
Batting average.311
Runs33
Home runs9
RBI32
On-base average.379
Slugging percentage.534
BA with RISP.333
BA vs. RHP.303
BA vs. LHP.327
Go-ahead RBIs7
Game-tying RBIs4
Assists5

But if they had Church and his "you play till there's no game left to play" approach for more than 90 games, enough of the other adversity might have been offset, and the Mets' season would have extended into October.

"He was having a great season when he got hurt," Wagner said after the All-Star break, shortly after Church had begin a seven-week assignment to the disabled list. "He was our most valuable player, for sure. We were just finding out what a really good player he is when he went down. And I don't think he's been right yet in all the times he's tried to come back."

Church appeared to be in the midst of what would have been a breakout season for him. The speculation that developed after his trade to the Mets -- that he would evolve into a platoon right fielder -- proved completely unfounded. Moreover, the Mets learned they had a skilled right fielder with a strong, accurate arm and little fear of walls.

Church already had missed 35 games as Wagner spoke about him in Cincinnati that July afternoon, and there was no indication how many more he would miss or if he would return at all. The Mets didn't know; he didn't know. But he faced uncertainty of consequence that transcended baseball. "I don't want to die," Church said Tuesday morning, putting into words thoughts he had in July when most of his days were spent in bed and some of nights brought unnerving moments.

"I'd be ready to turn it, and I'd shut off the lights and I'd feel dizzy. My equilibrium was shot. My ears were messed up. I'd get panicky," he said. "I'd turn the lights back on and walk around, trying to get everything right."

Concern was his unwanted companion.

"It won't got away," Church said. "Ya know, 'Uncle.' Will it ever go away?"

Those experiences no longer occur. He has achieved symptom-free status and maintained it for months now. He spends his time these days as he spent time a year ago, except now Mason Church, born March 14, commands attention. His body reacted "like it always did" when he initiated offseason conditioning. Gone are the late-summer recurrences of dizziness he endured when "I'd try to sneak in and doing something [physical], even just curls."

Church, 30, acknowledges now that he had taken "five or six steps back" when he resumed playing Aug. 22. The foundation for a solid season he had created in February and March -- despite the first concussion and time lost to the birth of Mason -- had crumbled during his extended inactivity. His return, warmly embraced by Shea Stadium that night, could have been postponed, perhaps until April. And no one with any sense of his ordeal would have thought anything less of him.

"But I wanted to get back and play," Church said from his home in Viera, Fla. "I'm paid a lot of money [$2 million for 2008] to play. It probably wasn't the wisest thing to do."

'Consider the source'
NEW YORK -- Shortly after the Mets' season ended, word reached Ryan Church that he had hated playing for the Mets and was uncomfortable playing in New York. He was startled and a tad miffed. That assertion, the product of talk-radio bluster, prompted this response from the right fielder last week: "I say just [to] consider the source. I never said anything like that, never thought anything like that. With all that happened [his concussions and the extended absence they caused], I really enjoyed my time playing. And when I finally got back, the way I was received [at Shea Stadium Aug. 22], it was great. I love it there. I want to play there, I want to finish [his career] there."

But now Church is passed whatever doubts developed when he was tethered to his bed and "really scared." He accumulated 113 at-bats before his fly ball to center field, with Easley on first base, ended the Mets' season.

"I didn't produce like I had hoped to, but I proved I could play," Church said.

Church produced five hits, scored three times and drove in a run in 12 at-bats in his first four games back. But fatigue became an issue.

"Every day I had to try to find the energy to play. ... I hit a wall," he said.

And he didn't hit much else. His compromised comeback took a downturn. He batted .196 with 12 RBIs and four extra-base hits in his subsequent 102 at-bats.

And an injury to his right hip -- it required daily injections in September -- was another obstacle.

"But after what I'd been through [with the concussions], bumps and bruises weren't going to matter," he said.

So he played, producing more evidence that the trade that brought him and Brian Schneider to Shea Stadium for the seemingly modest cost of Lastings Milledge on Nov. 30 had genuine merit. The Mets are moving forward, fortifying the team for 2009, with scant concern about right field. Church will be examined by the club's medical staff before Spring Training. Neither he nor the club anticipates a problem.

Then will be back in position to complete what he began last April.

"That stretch before I got hurt, I hit my stride," he said. "I was finally backing up what I knew I could do. That stuff about platooning that I heard last year ... I used it as fuel to basically shut people up. I was doing that.

"And now I have to do it again. People are wondering if I can come back. I know I will."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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