NEW YORK -- The nadir of Alejandro De Aza's season turned out to be the final week of June. On a Saturday night in Atlanta, at the tail end of another hitless evening, De Aza popped up a bunt and slammed his bat to the ground in frustration, never bothering to hustle to first. Braves pitcher Jim Johnson alertly turned that into a double play, prompting manager Terry Collins to talk sternly to De Aza after the game.
Four nights later, De Aza went to sleep with a .158 batting average, a .216 on-base percentage and a .232 slugging mark. Fans lit up talk radio lines demanding his release. And all of it seemed warranted; the Mets have annually released outfielders under similar circumstances, from Chris Young in 2014 to John Mayberry Jr. last summer.
But injuries and other circumstances led to De Aza's continued employment, which he has recently used to reboot his season. De Aza's two-run homer in the third inning Tuesday led the Mets to a 7-1 win over the Yankees, improving his slash line since June 30 to .342/.490/.553.
"I'm not going to say [I was] frustrated, but it's not a good feeling," said De Aza, who signed a one-year, $5.75 million deal over the winter. "But I just kept myself in there, tried to keep my mind in the game."
Gradually, as the calls for De Aza's job have faded, the Mets have rewarded him with increased playing time. Lacking a healthy, natural center fielder, they have started De Aza in three straight games -- he led off Tuesday against the Yankees -- and five of their last eight.
"He's really worked hard to try to get it going," Collins said. "A lot of extra work, a lot of extra batting practice. He was real frustrated with the way things have gone. He thought he was going to get more playing time and hasn't, and I think knew that when he got in there, he had to start doing something. He's done a great job with it."
De Aza's presence in the lineup may remain frequent for the Mets, who still don't have a natural center fielder on their roster. Though Curtis Granderson boasts significant experience there and Michael Conforto has dabbled at the position, neither has played it as regularly in recent times as De Aza. New acquisition Justin Ruggiano, also a center fielder, is already on the disabled list. The Mets would prefer not to give Jay Bruce too much exposure in center. And while they would love to place Yoenis Céspedes back at the position, they won't dare try it until his leg injury heals.
That leaves De Aza, which is fine for the Mets so long as he remains -- imagine saying this a month ago -- one of the National League's hottest hitters.
"It's just working," De Aza said. "You put your mind to something that you really want to work on, and keep working, see the good side of it, and keep it up."