NEW YORK — The unimportant steps David Wright took Wednesday night, in the moments before first pitch, are suddenly paramount. He is a 33-year-old man with the back of someone twice his age, a back that is more difficult to manage than toddler triplets. So those idle jogs big leaguers take across the shallow outfield grass as the crowd files in and the lineups are announced? They’re not idle anymore.
“This kid, he is extremely proud,” Mets Manager Terry Collins said. “He wants to play. He knows who he is and what he does for this organization, and he wants to be on that field, and he thinks that’s the way for him to lead. And I understand that. I totally get that. But I will tell you when you sit and talk to him, you’ll sense the frustration.”
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The frustration is here, in May, and it’s almost certainly a summer-long issue for Wright, for the Mets and therefore for the National League East race. Wright was back in the lineup Wednesday night for the second game of an interesting early-season series against the Washington Nationals. To be in the lineup — playing third base, hitting third — Wright had to perform not just the more-important-than-they-used-to-be pregame trots, but undergo a litany of stretches, his body a pretzel.
“That’s no fun,” Wright said after he went 0 for 4 in a 7-1 Nationals’ win.
This is what spinal stenosis has wrought on Wright, a seven-time all-star who has been the face of this franchise for more than a decade. Last year, the condition — a narrowing of the spinal column — snuck up on Wright after he suffered a strained hamstring, then caused angst all summer as he developed severe back pain. The Mets stayed in the race without their captain, but even as he returned in August and played well as the Mets won the National League pennant, there were no obvious answers about his future. He is owed $87 million from 2016 to 2020, five seasons in which the Mets hardly know what to expect — not just in total, and not just year-to-year, but night-to-night.
“It’s tough coming to the ballpark every day and seeing if it’s going to be a good day or a not-so-good day,” Wright said. “That’s the challenging part — mentally and physically.”
When Wright arrived at the ballpark for Tuesday’s series opener, he simply was in no physical condition to play. The Mets were coming off a day off. Yet Collins sat him down, and then sat him out.
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“My star player wanted to play, and he was hurting,” Collins said. “And the discussion was, ‘I know you want to play. I know the situation — big game, big series, the captain. I get it. But I have a responsibility to David Wright, the other 24 guys in the clubhouse and myself.’ And I said, ‘I just can’t let you play. We need you more than just one game.’ ”
The Mets’ plan has been to play Wright no more than three games in a row. But even this approach to managing the problem has been fraught. As the Mets wrapped up a West Coast trip in Colorado, with Wright having gone 4 for 26 along the way, Collins sat him for the finale. But the manager needed a pinch hitter, so Wright began his stretching ritual, got as loose as he could, and took an at-bat in the ninth. With two outs and the tying run on first, he grounded out to end the game.
Might that single at-bat have had an impact on Wright’s inability to play Tuesday? “I have no idea,” Collins said. But it clearly will impact the Mets going forward. There may well be days when Wright is completely off limits. In a race that could be taut — the Nats led the Mets by 1½ games — regularly playing down a man could be significant. Plus, Collins said that the current plan is little more than guesswork, and it may well have to change.
Collins said he told Wright on Tuesday: “ ‘When we talked about managing this, we put this three-and-one thing together because we played you four days in a row and that didn’t work, so we went to three and one.’ And I said, ‘There’s no telling, we may go to two and one. Maybe we need to go three and two. We’ll manage it as it goes.’ ”
This is, though, difficult with a player of Wright’s stature — not to mention the years and dollars remaining on his contract. Wright is friends with Nationals stalwart Ryan Zimmerman, the players joined in age and Virginia roots, in abilities and position on the field, in importance to their franchise. In 2014, when his surgically repaired right shoulder severely compromised his ability to make throws from third base, Zimmerman moved to left field, then last year to first base. Zimmerman said he tries not to talk to Wright about his back issues — “a different animal,” he said — but he knows something of managing crippling physical problems but holding the same standards.
“You expect certain levels out of yourself,” Zimmerman said. “And part of that is it’s hard to not play every day at this level and be successful. . . . Especially if you’ve been an everyday player your whole career, and then [you’re] forced to take off a lot of days, or maybe just play 120, 125 games. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
That is Wright’s current world. The Mets could try to move him to first base, where Lucas Duda is only under club control through next year, to lessen the additional toll that throwing can put on Wright’s back. But the back, it’s a different animal, and Wright’s condition makes his situation an entirely different species.
In the eighth inning Wednesday night, Wright swung through a 92-mph fastball from Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley, his third strikeout of the night, his 47th in 139 plate appearances. So the questions come: Was his back bothering him? Does he need another day off? How’s he feeling today, and how will he feel tomorrow and in June and in September?
“The back thing is just something that I’m going to have to get used to,” he said, “because it’s not changing.”
The Mets, though, may have to change how they deal with it.