NEW YORK -- The hometown hero has returned.
It's been a tough road back since that fateful first day of June, when Mike Baxter lied in the Citi Field outfield, writhing in pain after the Whitestone, N.Y., native completed one of the most important plays in Mets history.
A running catch in left field, which sent Baxter crashing into the wall, helped preserve Johan Santana's no-hitter -- the first in franchise history. But in the process, it displaced the outfielder's right collarbone and also fractured his rib cartilage next to the sternum, costing Baxter six weeks of the season during the best stretch of his career.
Entering the 2012 season, Baxter was a career .214 hitter in 31 Major League games over two seasons with the Padres and Mets. Forty games into this season, Baxter was hitting .323 with a .392 on-base percentage, and he was firmly embedded in the outfield rotation.
Then Baxter had to shut down everything.
"This was the first time where I really felt in the mix," Baxter said. "To get hurt there, it's definitely frustrating, but you just got to hope and trust that you get another opportunity, and now I'm thankful and grateful that I've got a chance to come back and play."
Baxter has gone through his share of frustrations this season, but through it all, he's remained patient. The only thing he waits for now is his pitch to hit, and it's finally paying off. Baxter's calm approach at the plate has helped raise his OBP to .429 -- the highest on the team, even topping David Wright (.416). Baxter even recorded a club-record five walks in one game on Aug. 4, and his diligence in his rehabilitation has him back in the Mets' lineup and contributing on a daily basis.
But while most fans know of Baxter's heroics during the no-hitter, few can truly understand the aggravation he endured thereafter.
"I wasn't able to really catch my breath or take a deep breath," Baxter said. "I tried to lay down in bed that night, and it didn't work. So I sat on the couch and waited to go to the doctors the next day at eight. The first night was just terrible."
Baxter stayed up all night trying to catch his breath, hoping for a solution. His savior came in the form of an old recliner from his parents' house. Baxter's father, Ray, and his friend moved the chair from the house in Queens to Baxter's apartment. The injury prevented Baxter from performing simple tasks like putting on a shirt or driving a car, but worst of all, he couldn't get up under his own power from a reclined position.
The chair allowed Baxter to get some rest, when rest was the only prescribed medicine.
"Literally, moving your arm for the first couple weeks, I couldn't get my arm over my head because of the way the collarbone works," Baxter said. "The chair was actually really good. I could sleep on that, because I could get out of it. I'd hit the button and get up."
Sleeping was one problem Baxter solved, but figuring out what to do with his spare time was another matter entirely.
To make matters worse, the Mets went on a nine-game road trip almost immediately after Baxter's injury, so aside from watching games on TV and doing limited range-of-motion exercises -- moving his arm inches at a time -- the 27-year-old wasn't doing much with his days.
"I'd sleep. I'd wake up in the morning and eat breakfast, and that was it," Baxter said. "It was so boring. It was terribly boring. In the middle of the season, you're so used to going in every day, and it gets pulled out from underneath you."
Once the Mets returned home, Baxter would have his wife drive him to the stadium so he could find some entertainment, but one could only imagine his excitement when he was finally cleared to resume baseball activities. He went down to Port St. Lucie, Fla., on July 4, to begin building back his strength, only to find that there's not a whole lot to do at the Mets' complex in the summer.
If it hadn't been for Jason Bay, who was rehabbing at the same time while recovering from a concussion, Baxter would have been further detached from the team and stuck in a world of monotony.
Instead, Baxter made a friend.
"You get down there, you get your work done and you basically have from noon on at your disposal," Bay said. "Let's be honest, looking at both of us, we're not beach guys. It was just a lot of talking baseball life. It was kind of nice to get to know him a little bit. You don't get to sit down with a lot of guys one-on-one for an extended period of time."
The two outfielders swapped stories while eating together. Bay also dealt with a rib injury earlier in the season, although his was a cracked bone and Baxter's was a cartilage issue. Still, the experience helped guide Baxter, who had never been through anything like it before.
"A lot of the doctors were kind of telling me it was going to be similar to Jason's in terms of progression, in terms of how it was going to heal," Baxter said. "We were able to compare stories, and it actually lined up pretty similarly in terms of what we could do and what hurt. It was good to have some perspective and have an idea of the path."
But the honeymoon would eventually end, and when Bay and Baxter returned to New York, they found themselves locked in a position battle for playing time. At first, manager Terry Collins wanted to give Bay a chance to win the left-field job outright, but the 33-year-old has struggled since returning from the disabled list on July 17, collecting just seven hits in 65 at-bats over 22 games.
In light of Bay's difficulties at the plate, Collins has decided to platoon Bay and Baxter based on matchups, with Bay starting against southpaws and Baxter vs. right-handers. While Bay's ineffectiveness during a time when Baxter is proving to be a valuable commodity can only spell good things for the Queens native, Baxter wants nothing but success for his friend, who got him through his own hard times.
"We just want him to do well," Baxter said. "That's all we want from him. He works so hard. He's such a good guy. Everybody knows it. He's such a quality guy. We want to see him have success, all the guys, myself included."
As for Baxter's future, the jury is still out. After 85 at-bats this season, Baxter is hitting .306, but Collins believes that isn't enough of a sample to know if he'll turn into an everyday Major League outfielder. For now, he sees promise in Baxter, despite a bit of rust since the injury.
"I think Mike Baxter is going to be a very good baseball player here," Collins said. "He's got great discipline. He's a smart player. What we're seeing is a guy who still has great plate discipline, but right now, he doesn't have the same bat speed as before he got hurt, and that's only natural."
Collins said the only cure for that is more at-bats, and he plans on continuing to give them to his most patient hitter.
"Hopefully, you have an idea of the zone, and I'm kind of seeing it well now," Baxter said. "I hope that continues, because it's a good feeling to know and recognize pitches."
Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.