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Rivera ready to seize opportunity

Wright's injury setback opens door for prospect to make Opening Day roster
MLB.com @AnthonyDiComo

JUPITER, Fla. -- To sharpen T.J. Rivera's batting eye, the Mets have taken to placing a wooden stick across home plate, the numbers one through seven emblazoned across it in a horizontal row. A pitcher throws Rivera batting practice, or sometimes soft tosses. After each swing, Rivera must correctly identify which seventh of the plate the ball crossed.

It is in this fashion that the Mets hope to fine-tune Rivera's game, an effort that became decidedly more important this week. With David Wright likely to miss Opening Day due to a shoulder impingement, and Jose Reyes set to replace him at third base, that opens up a spot at the back of New York's bench for Rivera.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- To sharpen T.J. Rivera's batting eye, the Mets have taken to placing a wooden stick across home plate, the numbers one through seven emblazoned across it in a horizontal row. A pitcher throws Rivera batting practice, or sometimes soft tosses. After each swing, Rivera must correctly identify which seventh of the plate the ball crossed.

It is in this fashion that the Mets hope to fine-tune Rivera's game, an effort that became decidedly more important this week. With David Wright likely to miss Opening Day due to a shoulder impingement, and Jose Reyes set to replace him at third base, that opens up a spot at the back of New York's bench for Rivera.

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"It's tough to not think about it, but it is something that I try to pop out of my head just because it will affect my game," Rivera said. "My goal is to work on and worry about the things I can control. All my career, I've never really had control of what's going to happen other than what I can do on the field."

What Rivera did on the field last year was certainly eye-catching: a .333 average with three home runs in 113 plate appearances for the Mets, earning him the everyday second-base job down the stretch in Neil Walker's absence. That came on the heels of a Pacific Coast League batting title at Triple-A Las Vegas.

But Rivera nonetheless came to camp this year without a job. Returns to health for Wright and Walker pushed Reyes to the bench, where he entered spring as the Mets' super-utility man -- that is, until Wright's latest setback changed the equation.

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Now, there is an open bench spot. While a Mets official on Wednesday characterized Rivera and Ty Kelly as the main candidates, the team recently outrighted Kelly off the 40-man roster. That gives Rivera an edge to make the club -- something he has rarely had working his way through the Mets' system as an undrafted free agent.

"My mentality whenever I come to spring is I'm going to fight to be the best player I can be," Rivera said. "If the spot goes to me, so be it. If it doesn't, I'm not going to bow my head down and be negative about it.

"I know what I'm capable of. Hopefully, others do as well."

For now, Rivera is doing everything he can to force the Mets' hand. Before Wednesday's 6-1 loss to the Cardinals, Rivera continued his habit of taking extra ground balls at third base. Three times this spring, he has finished games in left field, adding versatility to his profile before leaving to join Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic.

Mostly, though Rivera must continue to hit. Because Mets officials fear pitchers exploiting Rivera's free-swinging ways, he is attempting to rein in his strike zone this spring. But neither he nor the team wants to see his trademark aggressiveness -- he swung at 54.8 percent of all pitches last season, which would have ranked fourth in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify -- disappear.

"I don't want to change a lot, because you change a little bit of the aggressiveness sometimes and he all of a sudden starts to struggle," manager Terry Collins said. "That's not what we want."

Added Rivera: "I'm not going to take my aggressiveness away. I'm going to keep playing the way I play. But I want to try to refine my strike zone a little bit."

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

New York Mets, T.J. Rivera