Matsui under more pressure to make transition
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The experiment is buried several layers beneath the Mets' day-to-day consciousness, but is just as important as, say, Pedro Martinez's willingness to abide by Willie Randolph's rules in the clubhouse or Carlos Beltran's emerging presence as a team leader.
The Mets' hopes of catching the Braves depend on both Pedro and Beltran, of course, but they're keeping their fingers crossed on the biggest gamble of all -- whether Jose Reyes and Kazuo Matsui can deliver seamless double plays this summer.
Actually, this curiosity can be divided into two separate questions. Can Reyes stay healthy long enough to be a factor? And can Matsui, a converted shortstop, learn the subtleties of second base in just a few weeks in camp?
The answers will go a long way in determining how far above .500 the Mets land this summer. So far, both infielders seem to be adapting well, particularly Matsui, who had a strong showing in the Mets' spring debut against the Nationals.
While the rest of the baseball world was otherwise celebrating the Nationals' unveiling, Met officials were busy dissecting Matsui's reaction to two challenging plays in the third inning.
The first was a slow bouncer hit by Brian Schneider, forcing Matsui to make a running, one-handed grab. One out later, Matsui raced in to smother Endy Chavez's high chopper, effectively handling the in-between hop as if he'd been playing second base all his life.
While it's still too early to declare the conversion a full success, Matsui is earning praise from teammates. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz spoke for the entire organization when he said, "If [Matsui] can play shortstop, he can play second. Obviously, he's got great feet and great hands."
Actually, fielding ground balls could be the least of Matsui's troubles, considering many of his 23 errors at shortstop last year -- fifth most in the majors at that position -- were the result of a below-average arm. The Mets admit they were shocked at how poorly Matsui threw in his first season in the big leagues, although that deficiency will be naturally masked at second base.
Without having to worry about those long throws across the infield anymore, Matsui now spends long hours coping with a different litmus test -- turning the double play quickly and fearlessly.
"I still have a lot to learn about that," he said through an interpreter this week. "I must learn how fast the runner [at first base is] and know how hard the ball is hit. I can practice these things, but in a game it's different."
The Mets have a battery of tutors handling the crash-course education, including bench coach Sandy Alomar, a former second baseman, and infield instructor Manny Acta. It doesn't hurt, either, to have Willie Randolph, a career second baseman, overseeing the learning curve, either.
More than anyone, Randolph knows what Matsui is up against every time a runner tries to break up a double play. How long a second baseman can hold the bag is a measure of his experience, if not his courage, although Matsui showed little of the former last year, even making the easier pivot from shortstop.
This year, Matsui will be making that turn with his back to the runner. That's why the Mets are teaching him to acquire a second pair of eyes, which are a second baseman's best friend in a tight spot.
"You have to be able to look at your third baseman or shortstop, but at the same time you have to know where that runner is. You have to be able to sense him," Randolph said. "Kaz is going to have to learn how to make the turn and take the hit [from the runner]. Or if the guy is right on him, low-bridge him [with a low throw]. Or sometimes you have to know when to get one [out] and just get out of there. All that comes with time."
Can Matsui possibly become this polished in March? He says yes, but Reyes, who spent most of last summer trying to make the same position change, says a one-month conversion could be an unrealistic goal.
"You have to learn it little by little. That's why I came to camp early last year, because it doesn't happen right away," Reyes said. "I'd been a shortstop my whole life, but I said I would do it because I wanted to help the team."
You don't have to ask Reyes if he's happier having returned to familiar turf at shortstop. The more pertinent question is whether his legs can be counted on over a 162-game season.
Of course, teams don't often feel so apprehensive about 21-year-olds, but Reyes is an unusual case, having suffered with chronic hamstring problems and a broken fibula that limited him to just 53 games last year.
But just like Matsui, a renewed Reyes is giving the Mets reason for hope. Not only is his hamstring finally repaired, but he's literally re-learned how to run, shedding the awkward-looking stride a conditioning coach counseled him to adopt.
Reyes is back to a longer, smoother style and says, "I don't have to worry about getting hurt anymore. Now, I just run."
The Mets intend to give Reyes a full security clearance on the bases this year, which they say could turn him into a 70-plus stolen base threat. That would turn Reyes into a franchise record-setter, but the Mets are restricting their real daydreaming to up-the-middle defense.
In fact, the Mets are counting down the days before they can finally declare the Reyes-Matsui experiment a success.
"This has a chance," Randolph said eagerly. "Me and my coaches look at Kaz and say, 'He has a chance.' We're definitely getting there."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.