Mets answer Church's prayers to play

Mets answer Church's prayers

NEW YORK -- Behind closed doors, far away from the ballpark, Ryan Church and his Nationals buddies would gather and wonder. They knew that Church had talent, that he had ability and promise -- all those ingredients that a would-be slugger might need.

What he didn't have was a forum to prove it. So day after day, Church would check out the lineup card to see if he might be on it. Sometimes -- oftentimes -- his name was not there, and, as teammate Brian Schneider said, "we were all wondering why."

"He always got frustrated," Schneider said. "So I'd come and I'd sit there and let him vent. I just let the guy talk and I listened, and told him to stay positive."

Finally, his opportunity came -- not on the field, but in a phone call. The voice on the other end said that Church was to head from Washington to New York in a trade for Lastings Milledge, and even from that first hour, the implications were clear. If Church could hit, he would play in right field every day. If he couldn't, he would not.

Turns out, he could hit.

One quarter of the way into this season, Church continues to lead the Mets in nearly every offensive category worth leading. His .307 average leads all regulars by no small margin, and his nine home runs are tops on the team. He's shown a knack for slugging, a proclivity for reaching base and a propensity for scoring once he gets there.

He's erased skepticism from a public that wasn't entirely ready to give up on Milledge, a then-22-year-old prospect who commanded higher expectations than Church ever did. And he's dissolved talk that he might not be fit to be a full-time player. Scrutinized all spring for an apparent inability to hit left-handed pitching, Church spent the season's first seven weeks constructing a .327 average and .551 slugging percentage against left-handers.

"We all knew he had the ability," Schneider said. "He just had to do it day in and day out, and on a consistent basis. I think he just needed the opportunity."

Now in May, the temperature has warmed, and Church hasn't cooled. In Sunday night's Subway Series finale against the Yankees, he made a sliding catch in right field to save a run, drilled a homer not too far from the deepest part of Yankee Stadium, then nearly bowled over center fielder Melky Cabrera with another line drive in the ninth.

In Arizona earlier this month, he preserved one win with a rocket throw from right field. Days later, he crashed into Dodger Stadium's outfield wall trying to do it again.

To the New Yorkers who wanted Milledge in right field instead of him, Church has pleaded his case. Milledge, something of an enigma during his time in Queens, wrapped up Sunday's play with a .234 average in tow. He has hit one home run.

Also in that deal, the Mets received Schneider, a guide for the pitching staff and a bit of an offensive surprise. The two are good friends, inseparable in the clubhouse and close off the field -- where things are going just as swimmingly. During Spring Training, Church and his wife, Tina, welcomed their first child, Mason Alexander. When Church rejoined the club, he altered his batting stance, a move that vaulted him into this hot streak in the first place. He's been there ever since, enjoying this surreal ride.

Which begs the question, in this most cynical of towns, of when it all might end.

There's reason to believe that Church, a .271 hitter with middling power numbers coming into this season, can't keep up this pace. It would be quite something to maintain.

Even Church knows that the day will come when his honeymoon with the city will be complete. To date, he's managed to avoid the boos that usher so many transplants into New York, simply because of how well he's played. That might yet change.

"There's going to be a slump," Church said. "I know there's going to be a slump. That's just part of it, and you're going to have to deal with it. You can't really get frustrated and down on yourself, because all it takes is one good game, one good series, one good week and you're back at it. I've been there."

Of aid is his disposition -- a mix of confidence, cockiness, and just the right amount of indifference. Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner, one of his teammates at the University of Nevada, calls him "pretty strong in the head." Full of "mental toughness."

It's what's allowed Church to thrive wherever the Mets have put him. Placed in a Spring Training battle for playing time with those who -- supposedly -- could better hit left-handed pitching, Church won the job. Bounced from seventh to second to fifth in the batting order to accommodate his slumping teammates, Church has hit without discrimination.

So he doesn't do much griping these days. Church enjoys his team, enjoys his success, enjoys his life. Those whispered conversations about playing time were left in Washington, because here in New York, things are different. Things are better.

"The opportunities for myself and others are going to be endless," Church said. "When this team is going full-bore and we get everybody going, it's going to be exciting.

"Why wouldn't you love the situation?"

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