Needing offense, Mets try Church in center

Needing offense, Mets try Church in center

NEW YORK -- The return of Gary Sheffield to the Mets' lineup means that Ryan Church is no longer in the cleanup spot. But Church finds himself in the middle of his team's defense, making his first start in center field as a Met on Friday night against the Yankees.

The decision is emblematic of the way the remaining Mets -- a group that seems to dwindle by the day -- have had to take on new roles and responsibilities amid a seemingly endless rash of injuries.

"I do have my track shoes on," Church joked before Friday's game. "I need to get my PF Flyers."

It's not entirely uncharted territory for Church, who started 95 games in center field as a member of the Expos and Nationals -- many of them in the spacious outfield of RFK Stadium. Church has two career errors and two career assists in center.

"You've got a lot of ground to cover -- you've got to be all about position," Church said. "It's nothing different. I've played there before."

By starting Church in center over Jeremy Reed and Fernando Martinez, the Mets are showing that they are willing to sacrifice some defense in order to keep Church's surging bat in the lineup. Friday was Church's 14th consecutive start for the Mets, and entering the Subway Series opener, he had hit .292 with six doubles and nine RBIs in that span.

The surge has provided a big boost of confidence for a player who has struggled to find an offensive rhythm since missing almost three months with a concussion last season.

"He is one of the pieces that we feel is an everyday guy," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "If he's an everyday guy, he's got to be out there every night."

Church isn't the only Met finding himself in a less-than-familiar spot these days. Shortstop Alex Cora, signed as a utility infielder, is playing every day, and Fernando Tatis has occupied a slot in the heart of the Mets' order more often than not recently.

It's all part of the necessity of filling the void left by Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado -- three stars on the disabled list. Even without that trio and Sheffield, who received a cortisone shot behind his right knee and had missed four straight games before returning on Friday, the Mets were able to take three of four from the Cardinals, who occupied first place in the National League Central entering Friday.

"Guys that are not everyday guys or guys that are taking on more important roles as far as where they hit in the lineup -- it gives them confidence that we can get this done," Manuel said of the series victory over the Cardinals, which ended a four-series losing streak for the Mets.

Even Manuel has changed his tune a bit over the past month as the spate of injuries has dragged on. Where the manager once spoke of treading water and surviving until the All-Star break, when some starters would hopefully return, Manuel now discusses the possibility that the Mets can go on a run before their three-day vacation in mid-July.

Manuel has mentioned that he would like to see the Mets rise to five or six games over .500 before the All-Star break. The team entered Friday with a 37-34 record, 16 games before the break.

"All teams have a streak at some point, regardless of the personnel," Manuel said, referring to the 11-1 start the Florida Marlins enjoyed this season. "That's what we're hoping -- that we can be a team that has that streak and has it at this time. There are going to be streaks in the course of 162 [games], but can you maintain that? And how long is that?"

It was at this point last year that the Mets had their streak -- 10 wins in a row around the All-Star break that moved them from 42-44 and in third place to eight games over .500 and in first in the NL East.

A streak in early July wouldn't be breaking new ground for Manuel and the Mets, then. It just might take their PF Flyers to get there.

Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.