Braves 9, Mets 4: Baxter case; DJ DL?

Mike Baxter continued his solid Grapefruit League production Friday and is making a strong case that he should be selected over Adam Loewen for the lefty-hitting backup outfield role.

Baxter, who started in center field against the Atlanta Braves, went 2-for-2 with a walk and drove in two runs with a game-tying single in the fifth to lift his spring average to .343 (12-for-35).

Miguel Batista surrendered four runs in two innings -- including a two-run homer by Dan Uggla -- in relief of Jon Niese, however, and the Mets lost the Braves, 9-4, at ESPN Wide World of Sports.

Loewen is hitting .242 with 17 strikeouts in 33 at-bats during Grapefruit League play.

“From the start I’ve just been trying to prepare for the season, regardless of the spot I’m trying to win,” Baxter said. “I’m having good at-bats, working with Hudgy [hitting coach Dave Hudgens] trying to take the ball back up the middle of the field and get your timing down. Over the last couple of weeks I feel like it’s starting to come together. I still think there’s a little bit to go, though, in terms of just getting through balls and things -- extending and stuff. But so far, so good.”

Baxter, 27, was a July 22 waiver claim last season from the San Diego Padres. A product of Archbishop Molloy in Queens, he made his Mets debut Aug. 8 and primarily saw action in right field the remainder of the season. After being removed from the 40-man roster during the offseason, Baxter decided to remain with the organization.

When he joined the Mets last summer, Baxter told Terry Collins center field was not a comfortable position. But the Mets desperately need their backup outfielders to show an aptitude in center field, at least while Andres Torres (calf) and Scott Hairston (oblique) are on the mend. Baxter has now started to get exposure to the position, including Friday’s start. He has logged 43 minor league games in center, including twice last season during an interlude at Triple-A Buffalo before his major league promotion.

“That’s the first time I’ve been with a new team, so I wanted to give them kind of a detailed analysis of what I’ve done in the past,” Baxter said about last year’s conversation regarding positions with Collins. “It was right field, then first base, then left field, then center in that order of games placed. So, based off of that, I wanted him to have all the information there.

“I feel good in the outfield,” Baxter continued. “I feel good in center field. I take reps there and I’ve been working hard there. I’m glad that I’m having an opportunity to play there. In the past I really haven’t because I’ve been behind other players. Even if it’s just limited time in spring training, it’s exciting to get a chance to play center. And I think it’s important for my style of game to play there.”

Said Collins: “He’s been OK. In the beginning, he hadn’t played much center field. He probably played the least of any of those guys. I’ve been trying to get him out there so I have a better judgment of how he’s going to do, and he’s done fine. I said, ‘You’re going to have to play some center field while you’re here.’ He said, ‘I haven’t played a lot.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to play some here.’”

D.J. Carrasco

Relief Pitcher
New York Mets


• Pitching coach Dan Warthen said he hoped D.J. Carrasco, who sprained a right ankle, would be ready to pitch in a minor league game Sunday. However, Carrasco made it sound Friday back at camp like a DL trip to start the year is likely in the offing.

“It’s not looking that way,” Carrasco told the team’s web site, referring to his availability for Opening Day.

Carrasco opening the season on the DL likely would ensure Batista lands on the roster with the final bullpen spot, joining Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Acosta, Bobby Parnell and the placeholder for Tim Byrdak. Collins said Chris Schwinden or a second left-hander might be alternate considerations, but the Mets are struggling just to find one left-hander right now to offset Byrdak’s unavailability while he mends from knee surgery.

Matt den Dekker, who has been pulled back into major league camp, will start in center field on Friday against the Cardinals. What are his chances to make the team if Torres and Hairston’s injuries linger? “He’s a legitimate consideration,” Collins insisted.

Den Dekker twice has appeared on ESPN’s top-10 plays of the day for highlight-reel catches -- once during the College World Series with the University of Florida, once last spring training while being borrowed from minor league camp. He struck out a lot last season in the minors. But, as was demonstrated in Friday’s game -- when novice outfielders Lucas May, Lucas Duda and Loewen each played balls into triples -- den Dekker would at least be a steadying force defensively.

• Infielder Jordany Valdespin saw late action in center field for a second straight day as he gets a crash course at the position. Valdespin drifted backward and snared his lone opportunity Friday, on a routine fly ball by Jose Constanza.

“For me, it’s easy, because I played the outfield before -- more in center,” said Valdespin, referring to pregame workouts this past winter-ball season in the Dominican Republic with Licey, although not in-game usage. “I’ll be ready. I prepared in the offseason for that. They asked me if I played outfield. I said, ‘Yeah, I played outfield before.’”

Jonathon Niese

Starting Pitcher
New York Mets


• Niese surrendered consecutive triples to Michael Bourn and Martin Prado to open the first inning. The southpaw, who was coming off tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Braves last weekend in Port St. Lucie, this time ultimately was charged with four earned runs on four hits while striking out four and walking none in four innings. He also plunked Freddie Freeman with a pitch.

Niese was pulled for the pinch-hitter Loewen with two runners on base and two out in the top of the fifth so Collins could see Baxter’s primary competitor in that role. Loewen walked, then entered the game in center field before moving to first base. Loewen struck out in his other plate appearance.

As for Niese, he threw two extra innings in the bullpen because his pitch count only sat at 54 when he departed. He is slated to throw 95 to 105 pitches pitches Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, then have a 50- to 60-pitch minor league start before taking the ball against the Braves in Game 3 of the season, April 8 at Citi Field.

“I don’t know what’s worse -- giving up two leadoff home runs, or two leadoff triples,” Niese said. “The results were the same. Other than that, I felt real good and pounded the zone. I don’t know if I walked anybody, but I don’t think I did. … Obviously today, despite the results -- it looks bad on paper -- I really felt good minimizing the walks. I’m pretty happy with that.”

• Left-hander Mike Minor, who will be a member of Atlanta’s rotation, had tossed 14 scoreless Grapefruit League innings before the Mets tallied three runs (two earned) on three hits and four walks in 4 2/3 innings against him. Minor’s ERA climbed to 0.96. Josh Thole tripled to lead off the second and score on Vinny Rottino’s single. The final run charged to Minor scored on Baxter’s two-out, two-run single against reliever Anthony Varvaro. Thole has only one triple in 544 career major league at-bats. He had a career-high four at Class A St. Lucie in 2008.

Mike Pelfrey, who surrendered eight runs in 2 2/3 innings Sunday against the Astros, takes the mound again Saturday, against St. Louis. Pelfrey did show better velocity in an otherwise miserable outing against Houston after sitting at 87 mph earlier in Grapefruit League play.

“I want him to go out there and let it loose like he did the other day, because I think that’s what he is,” Collins said. “And when he was pitching good, this guy has an outstanding arm.”

• Lefty-specialist competitor Garrett Olson allowed the final game’s run. After retiring the lefty-hitting Constanza on a flyout, Olson plunked righty-hitting Andrelton Simmons, then allowed an RBI double to another righty hitter, Josh Wilson. Daniel Herrera tossed a scoreless inning.