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08/24/07 11:34 PM ET

Reyes helps restore order to Mets

Regardless of lineup machinations, leadoff man sets the pace

NEW YORK -- There was considerable discussion on Friday about a change in the middle of the New York Mets' batting order. It was all understandable, given the fact that prominent, veteran players were involved and one of them had been scuffling in a big way.

But the issue of which Met bats fifth or sixth pales in importance compared to the notion that the Mets will be all right as long as Jose Reyes is batting leadoff. For this contention, let us review the evidence from Friday night's opener of a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The change that manager Willie Randolph made was a simple flip-flop: Moises Alou from sixth to fifth, Carlos Delgado from fifth to sixth. Delgado has been so consistently productive for so long that his current struggles have become all the more noticeable.

Randolph was typically understated regarding the move, and that was understandable, too. Delgado has been taking the Mets out of a lot of recent rallies, but for them to be a National League championship team, something resembling Delgado's usual production would be extremely helpful.

"I have the luxury of having great hitters in my lineup," Randolph said. "Obviously, Carlos needs to get into a little bit of a groove, and he will."

Delgado was physically OK, Randolph said, and no, he would not be rested because of a slump. Delgado was almost whimsical about the change when approached by reporters before Friday night's game.

"I just go to the plate a minute later, as far as I'm concerned," he said with a smile. "I always forget to check the lineup. I should have known better."

This is all very well, but in the actual contest, the central fact was still Jose Reyes being a successful leadoff hitter. Brad Penny was going for the Dodgers, and though he had struggled some at Shea Stadium in the past, he had beaten the Mets twice this year and he came to this moment on the way to a dominant season -- 14-3 with a 2.59 ERA. There was an excellent chance that runs would be precious commodities.

First inning, Reyes led off with a walk and stole second. This is the thing with him -- a walk is equivalent to a double. Friday's was his 69th stolen base of the season. There are seven teams in the National League, where the running game is more prevalent, that do not have as many stolen bases as Jose Reyes does.

Reyes then scored on Ruben Gotay's double, and in the third, he was at it again. The Dodgers were playing him off the line at first, believing that he would not pull the hard-throwing Penny. But he did. He pulled a sharp grounder just inside the line. This ball did not go down into the right-field corner and would be a single for much of humanity. But it was a no-doubt, standup double for Jose Reyes.

Reyes was sacrificed to third by Gotay, and then he scored on David Wright's single. The score was 2-0 because Jose Reyes drew a walk and hit a well-placed, well-struck grounder. That's the kind of impact he has, routinely turning relatively little into runs for the New York Mets.

This is not to say that Reyes wins games singlehandedly. In this one, eventually a 5-2 New York victory, Oliver Perez pitched in and out of difficulty early, then settled in and successfully kept the Dodgers off the board for seven innings. His was a performance both victorious and comforting for the Mets.

Wright hit a solo home run and had two splendid defensive plays. Pedro Feliciano worked out of Jorge Sosa's bases-loaded jam in the eighth. It was a bounce-back night for the Mets, who needed one of them after losing two of three dramatic contests to the Padres.

What of Alou and Delgado in their new places in the order? Alou went 1-for-4 with a run scored. Delgado went 0-for-3 with a walk, although he did put up one tough 10-pitch at-bat that helped limit Penny's night to six innings.

There is every chance that both of these proven performers will make contributions down the stretch, regardless of where they are placed in the batting order. The Mets are not short on star power, but their real value starts early, with the very first batter in their order.

Reyes' numbers -- a .301 batting average and a .374 on-base percentage -- are nice, but they grossly understate his worth. His performance allows the Mets, game after game, to relentlessly pressure the opposition, to take the game to the other team. There can be as much tinkering as necessary with this lineup, but the Mets' leadoff man will continue to be as important as any one individual could be to a baseball team.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.