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Reyes experiences growing pains

LOS ANGELES – A couple years have passed since those Derek-or-Jose questions.

Remember them?

Spawned in New York, probably in the hours before one Subway Series or another, the debate arose in 2006. Who would you rather have at shortstop, Derek Jeter or Jose Reyes?

Then just 22, Reyes was going to bat an easy .300 and steal 60-some bases and hit 19 home runs. He chased down every ground ball and had a big arm and the perfect, non-deflating personality to step into New York as Jeter stood down.

Maybe you take Reyes then, you probably take Reyes now.

But there's a fresh question afloat.

Reyes or Hanley Ramirez? Or Jimmy Rollins? Or Yunel Escobar?

All reasonable discussions, all in the National League East alone.

The fact is, some of the glitter has come off Reyes' game. He had a good season, if not a great one, in 2007, when he faded – along with plenty of his teammates – in September. His first five weeks this year have been erratic at the plate and at shortstop, his on-base percentage is down and his errors are up, perhaps not entirely unrelated events.

And here are the New York Mets, supposedly driven by their electric little shortstop and leadoff hitter, unable to break out of their win-a-few, lose-a-few routine, in part because they're not scoring nearly enough runs to prop up the third-best pitching staff (without Pedro Martinez or Orlando Hernandez) in the division.

When Reyes goes, however, they go. And he'll go again, probably very soon. His baseball stardom came hard and fast and then he wore plenty of the responsibility for the most disappointing season in Mets history – which is saying something – and at the end of it all he was still just 24, figuring it out, unable to sustain the career course charted by his first 2,300 at-bats. The next few hundred haven't been as elegant.

"I'm still learning," he said Tuesday afternoon, smiling in a clubhouse where you couldn't take six steps without stumbling over one slump or another. "I'm just starting to feel comfortable at this level."

He's been an All-Star twice, in the top 16 in MVP balloting twice.

And just now, he said, he's beginning to get it. Driving the ball the other way. Defensive alignment. Reading the ball off the bat. Plate discipline. It's all coming.

"When you're young and come into the big leagues at a young age, it's difficult," he said.

He pointed to his head.

"You have to be strong in your mind," he said. "I'm still 24. I am still learning. I have stuff to take care of."

A couple hours later Tuesday night, on a first-pitch sinker from Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, Reyes poked a single to center field with the bases loaded, driving in the Mets' third run. An inning later, batting again with the bases loaded, he hit a sharp grounder to shortstop, ended the inning, and slammed his helmet to the ground halfway to first base.

Sometimes you carry the game, other times it carries you. The in-between times are where Reyes prospers, pushing the game on the basepaths and in the hole, living it up in the dugout, laughing through the hard times. He's not been quite that guy since September put a tiny wrinkle in their baseball souls, since his game and his affection for it – the flamboyant on-deck circle welcomes in particular – were examined through critical eyes for the first time.

"He seems the same to me," Willie Randolph said, "playing the game with the same exuberance."

Veteran Damion Easley has stood beside Reyes for more than a season now, watched him as the Mets appeared destined to win their second consecutive division title, watched him when it leaked away, watched him come back for more. Sure, moods changed, Easley said. Everybody's did. How could they not?

"To say something like that would be nitpicking, I think," he said. "His energy level is very good. He's pretty consistent with that. And he wants it. He wants it. It's important to him. You can see that."

So, Reyes struggles some, like the rest. He went bad in the worst possible September. He lives with that too. But, he said, he'll let his talent play, let the game come, expand the parts he can.

"Nobody can ever time when superstardom is going to hit," Easley said. "Everybody wants to automatically have it happen, to say this is the year he's going to be Superman. I'll tell you, he's doing everything he needs to do to progress. He's a good kid. He gets frustrated sometimes, emotional sometimes. Who doesn't?

"This has been a valuable lesson for him, to let him know that what people write, say or cheer, it's for the moment. He's got to be consistent in thinking he's the player he thinks he is. I'm sure it hardened him up a little bit, toughened him up."

Maybe. Reyes smiled. He's got stuff to take care of.

"Just play baseball," he said, that simply. "Just play baseball."

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