Wright on! Crowd cheers as captain pinch-hits

After nearly 2 1/2-year absence, beloved Met battles nerves before grounding to third on first pitch he sees

September 28th, 2018

NEW YORK -- By the time made the short walk from the Mets' dugout to the on-deck circle on Friday, Citi Field was abuzz. As fans adulated him, Wright looped his bat in a series of arcs, first with his right hand, then with his left. He took two practice cuts, then squatted for a moment, replicating the warmup routine that had once seemed just that -- routine.

"He looked like himself, really," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "His stance, the whole thing."

Over the two years, four months and one day Wright spent away from the Majors, the image of that routine faded, perhaps, in the minds of many. When Wright went back through the familiar motions of it on Friday, high-stepping each knee above his waist, taking two more practice cuts, the images of 13 seasons came flooding back. His big league debut. His walk-off hit against Mariano Rivera. His World Series home run in 2015.

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Then, in another flash, the moment was over -- not yet for good, but at least for the night. Wright chopped the only pitch he saw to third base on Friday, completing his first big league appearance since May 27, 2016, with a groundout in the Mets' 8-1 loss to the Marlins.

"I really felt butterflies that I never felt before," Wright said. "I think I was pretty close to throwing up on deck."

The worst of those nerves paralyzed him in the fourth inning. Three batters before the pitcher's spot in the lineup came due, Wright emerged from the clubhouse -- where he spent hours preparing his body for a pinch-hit appearance -- to the dugout. Helmet on his head and bat in hand, Wright stood near the dugout staircase, beaming. When popped up, Wright emerged on deck, went through his routine and began to feel nauseous.

"I was like, 'I can't do this right now. I can't do this,' " Wright said.

Circumstance saved the Mets' captain as he fought the type of nerves he never felt during his big league debut, nor the World Series, nor when either of his daughters was born. With Wright still on deck, grounded out to end the inning, allowing him to duck back into the clubhouse to regroup.

Several minutes later, in the bottom of the fifth, Wright emerged once more. He went through his routine, strode to the plate and hacked at the first pitch he saw: a 96-mph fastball. Grounding it to third base, Wright said afterward that he was happy just to put it in play.

"It really was overwhelming," Wright said.

The reason for his emotion was obvious; in the nearly two and a half years between Major League appearances, Wright underwent back, neck and shoulder surgeries. Diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a degenerative back condition, in 2015, Wright has appeared in just 76 games -- including Friday -- since that time. He announced earlier this month that this season will be his last as an active player.

Since then, Wright has kept his phone plugged in as often as possible, as friends and former teammates have deluged him with well-wishes. Before Friday's game, New York's starting pitchers approached Wright with an engraved bottle of wine. began to make a speech, but he fumbled with his words. He finally shoved the gift into Wright's arms and said, "Here, just take this box."

"We obviously have missed him for the last couple of years," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. "And we missed him this year -- his leadership, his ability to go out there and play. Every organization misses their captain, so there is a sadness to it. We're glad that he gets to go out there … and we're glad that his hard work paid off. He did everything he did to come back, and he's going to get to show everybody one more time."

That one last moment will occur on Saturday, when Wright starts at third base next to longtime teammate . Wright's daughter, 2-year-old Oliva Shea, is scheduled to throw out a ceremonial first pitch to her grandfather, Wright's dad. The Mets plan to show a three-and-a-half-minute tribute video to a sold-out crowd, among other surprises.

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"At least tomorrow, I can maybe take a bit of a deep breath and relax a little more," Wright said. "But I doubt it."

Following Wright's second at-bat, he will return to the infield one last time, presumably departing to another standing ovation. Then he will complete his routine for the final time, walking from the field back to the dugout to the clubhouse, and, eventually, out of Citi Field.