Martinez impressing skipper Manuel

Martinez impressing skipper Manuel

PITTSBURGH -- The return of Ryan Church to the Mets' roster Sunday still appeared likely Thursday afternoon.

The return of Ryan Church to the Mets' lineup appeared somewhat less likely and not for reasons of lingering injury. The player identified as "the Mets right fielder" by Jerry Manuel in Spring Training may find himself in circumstances similar to those of Brian Schneider.

The Mets played the Pirates in the final game of the rain-shortened series, and Schneider, a left-handed hitter, began the game as a wallflower while right-handed-hitting Omir Santos started against right-handed Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf. In the wake of the trade of Ramon Castro, Manuel hasn't said he would platoon his catchers. But with the Mets not scheduled to face a left-handed starter until Saturday, and with their game Wednesday night postponed, Schneider was rested and quite available.

But Santos clearly has won favor with the manager, and it appears Fernando Martinez has, as well. Moreover, there is a strong sense among the Mets that the manager doesn't appreciate Church as much as he might. Members of the Mets' hierarchy have said Martinez likely will return to the Minor Leagues when Church and Jose Reyes have ended their assignments on the disabled list, because the club prefers that Martinez play regularly in Triple-A rather than less regularly in the big leagues.

But Manuel indicated Wednesday he will afford Martinez every opportunity to win a regular, or almost-regular, assignment in the outfield. Indeed, when asked specifically whether his preference was to retain Martinez at the cost of playing time for other corner outfielders, he said yes.

Manuel said he could find a way to deploy Church, Fernandez and Gary Sheffield in the corners with Church playing right field and the two others playing left and right. Sheffield's need for occasional days off, and the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher, would be parts of the equation, but also the promise of Martinez, still regarded as the club's primary position-player prospect.

"If he's performing, he'll play," Manuel said. "He's done OK. He's faced a couple of left-handed pitchers here and there. He hasn't hurt us in the outfield. He's run OK."

Martinez, 20, began the game Thursday batting .174 with two doubles and three RBIs in 23 at-bats. He was hitless with no strikeouts in seven at-bats against left-handed pitching.

But there was more to the manager's assessment. Martinez's youth, energy and live body appeal to Manuel.

"In a long summer, that kind of energy can help you win games," he said. "We're not the same team we thought we would be without Carlos [Delgado], we need to do things differently. [Martinez] gives us more speed. That helps."

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