Clock ticking on struggling Jason Bay

NEW YORK -- Jason Bay says he doesn't believe his mechanics are the reason he's not hitting, and it's not the cavernous dimensions of Citi Field, or even the pressure of the four-year, $66 million contract he signed with the New York Mets. The truth is worse: The game is simply his problem, Bay said Sunday.

Lately, the Mets left fielder says, something just happens to him between batting practice and when the lights go up for real. He's not even sure if it's his mind or his swing or both that get distorted. Just that, right now, the game is the thing that's skewing everything.

There's a derogatory term for that kind of player in baseball. It's called being a 5 o'clock hitter. And Bay, who long ago passed frustrated and was well on his way to a pretty good case of self-loathing by Sunday, volunteered the label about himself when he spoke to reporters before he was benched for what turned out to be a Mets' 6-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.

"I can drive the ball in batting practice, I'm just not driving the ball in games," Bay sighed. "Obviously the ultimate goal isn't to be just a 5 o'clock hitter. But knowing that it's in there, it's just a matter of trying to find out what it is to make it the same all the time."

On Saturday, Bay lost his cleanup hitting job to red-hot Daniel Murphy and was told he'll hit sixth until further notice. He got booed after hitting into an eighth-inning double play to extend his latest slump to 0-for-17. When Bay came to the ballpark early on Sunday to continue the extra batting practice he's been taking all week, he caught up with Mets batting coach Dave Hudgens and asked, "What do you want to do today?'' Hudgens told him, "How about we take a day to relax?"

That's how Bay found out he was out of the lineup.

Mets manager Terry Collins didn't even change his mind and call Bay's name when right fielder Carlos Beltran limped off in the second inning after fouling a ball hard off his lower right leg. Collins sent in Willie Harris, who is hitting .214, instead. Later, Collins used Nick Evans as a pinch-hitter while Bay sat. And sat. And sat.

Five o'clock turned to 8 p.m, then 11 p.m.

The Mets improved to 28-31. But it's tempting or galling -- take your pick -- to think how much better their record might be if Bay was having a season nearly as good as he did for the Boston Red Sox or Pittsburgh Pirates before he got to New York. The Mets have been without Ike Davis and David Wright, two of their other top RBI guys, for weeks.

Bay hasn't gotten hammered for his slow start like, say, the Yankees' Jorge Posada or Derek Jeter have. It's hard to accuse Bay of turning into a head case now that he's in the crucible of New York because he supposedly answered the Can-He-Take-The-Heat? question in Boston, where he was not only playing for far higher stakes but had to replace possible future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez. Even the conjecture that Bay misses Wright and Davis protecting him in the Mets' batting order is debatable. He had less help in Pittsburgh and yet made the All-Star game twice there.

Bay has been hurt too much since joining the Mets to even shoehorn him into the long list of the Mets' all-time bad signings. But it is fair to start wondering if Bay is on his way.

For now, Bay is just in that awful limbo that every hitter goes through sometime. Most of them will tell you when they can't buy a hit they feel like it will never end, and many of them are willing to try almost anything to bust a slump.

Good-fielding infielders have been known to bury or burn gloves that betray them. The Mets Harris -- joking, "I feel Jason's pain" -- said he wore hot-hitting Justin Turner's socks for Sunday's game hoping it would start a hot streak "and Justin didn't even know it." Other guys use other hitter's bats. The San Francisco Giants and Jason Giambi each had their Thong Years.

"Leopard thongs, red thongs -- there's even a rumor there's been a pair of pink panties going around this clubhouse, at least among the pitchers, but, you know, I can't really say for sure," Mets reliever Jason Isringhausen laughed Sunday night.

Bay would probably try anything at this point. So much of this is new to him -- not the current 0-for-17 slump, exactly, but the way it's embedded in a .216, 10-RBI season that's clunking along even worse than the weak numbers he put up before a concussion ended his 2010 season after 95 games. Bay has hit just 11 homers all told since joining the Mets. But he hit for power or hit for average -- often both -- everywhere else he played.

Lately, says Bay, the really maddening thing is, "In batting practice I'm still that guy. The ball's coming off and it feels good. We just need to get that translated to the game. I feel like I'm putting the bat on the ball, I'm just not finding holes. I feel like I can drive the ball in batting practice, I'm just not driving the ball in games. So I'm just trying to figure out what the difference is, so I can take it from batting practice to the games."

Collins spoke hopefully about getting Bay going once the Mets get to their next series in Milwaukee. But Bay, frowning at anything that even remotely sounds like an excuse, "I think it's just a pretty decent hitter's ballpark. But I don't think it's one of those magical stadiums that makes everything right."

Then, he added, "I just need to hit the ball."

Bay has to know if Wright and Davis weren't hurt, even his high salary might not prevent Collins from platooning him more to make room for Turner and Murphy in the everyday lineup instead of just sitting out one game to get his head right. Bay is so tired of failing, he was open to anything.

"Maybe it'll help, I'm not sure -- I'm not sure anyone's sure. But I'll try it," he said.

It's too early to call Bay another Mets bust. But Bay knows the clock is ticking.

He says, "The ultimate goal isn't to be just a 5 o'clock hitter."