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Racin' Jason

Shea Stadium has puzzled, bedeviled and flummoxed many a good hitter with its combination of dimensions and weather conditions. There's a frustration factor that comes from too many long fly balls turned into outs and the result is that the batting average plummets.

In my 25-odd years of Mets watching, I've seen the ballpark dominate the player, rather than the other way around, a few too many times. There was one hitter though, who for what was otherwise a rather dismal campaign, had a complete mastery of everything Sheaness.

In 2003 we were introduced to Jason Phillips, a rather candid Californian with molassesesque speed, a sharp quick bat, and a penchant for doing nimble splits to catch stray throws at first base. In the absence of Mo Vaughn, Phillips, who signed with the Blue Jays on Tuesday, became the team's most pleasant surprise.

By July 13, the Mets were basically dead and buried, at 39-53 and in the NL East basement with one day remaining before the All-Star Break. Art Howe, Tom Glavine and company all got off to miserable starts, injuries took their toll, and the eason really had few purposes by this point. The Mets and Phillies were putting the wraps on a three-game series at Shea, with Tom Glavine twirling against Brett Myers. The real highlight of the day was that ex-Mets closer Tug McGraw, battling a brain tumor, threw out the first pitch, but there was a game to play as well

The Phillies led 2-0 going into the home fifth when the Flushing 9 strung together a nice rally. Jose Reyes knocked in one run and Phillips brought him home with a double. He then scored when Jeromy Burnitz followed with a double.

The Mets held that 3-2 lead into the 9th, but 2003 was not a kind year to their closer Armando Benitez, who yielded the tying run after retiring the first two batters in the ninth in what turned out to be his last game with the team. He left to a series of rather unpleasant sounds from those who attended the contest.

In the ninth inning, the Mets had a man on with one out for Reyes, who hit a line drive to right field. Bobby Abreu had trouble with it and Roger Cedeno stumbled his way to third base, putting the Mets within 90 feet of a win. The Phillies intentionally walked Jeff Duncan, an odd move, albeit a forced one since they decided it was best to set up a force at any base. Phillips, who already had two hits, got ahead 2-0 on Terry Adams and whacked the next pitch to right field, good for a game-winning single.

That kind of hit became a familiar sight. Phillips succeeded be he was patient and smart. He was a good clutch hitter and a good table setter because of his ability to hit the ball into the gaps and his skill for drawing walks. He also had no issues with one of the most difficult ballparks in baseball. In his rookie campaign, Phillips hit .354 at Shea Stadium, with a .556 slugging percentage (comparitively speaking, Mike Piazza only slugged better than that in one season during his Mets career). He finished the season in a slump, as a .217 September took him down to .298 and that served to foreshadow the events of the next two seasons.

Over that time, Phillips has abandoned that which made him good, causing most to dwell on what makes him bad (his lack of speed has established him as one of the slowest in the game). He seemed to be a bit rushed at the plate, the solid line drive singles and doubles turned into pop ups, and he voiced his frustration in ways that ticked some folks off, particularly the media in Los Angeles where he played during the 2005 season. I don't have a particular answer as to why Phillips' head got all screwy (pardon the pun), but I'll be an interested observer in seeing if he can return to form in Toronto.

True Metdrivers know...The only other Jason to get a walk-off hit for the Mets is Jason Hardtke.


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