NEW YORK -- Scott Rice's 14-year slog through the lower levels of baseball officially ended Monday, when the left-hander slipped on a uniform in a big league clubhouse and, for the first time, stood as a player on a big league field. He finally fulfilled his childhood dream in the ninth, striking out a pair of Padres in a scoreless inning.
It was mop-up duty in an 11-2 win, the pitching equivalent of grunt labor. It was also one of the most significant moments of Rice's life.
"I just hope he absorbed the whole thing," manager Terry Collins said. "I hope he stood for a second on the mound in that wind and just took a deep breath and said, 'OK. I'm here now. Let's have some fun with it.'"
Fourteen previous professional seasons saw Rice make stops in Bluefield, W.V.; Ottawa, Ontario; Frisco, Texas, and many others, coming close to the Majors several times but never quite making it. That changed Friday, when the Mets announced they would carry Rice as a second left-hander in their bullpen.
Over the weekend, the 31-year-old Rice received countless phone calls and text messages of congratulations, but could not savor them for too long. Preparing for the Padres, he said, was always on his mind.
So while Rice admitted to some jitters upon jogging out to the Citi Field mound, he did not soak in the moment in quite the way that Collins envisioned. Rice figured he would be able to reflect on it better in the hours after the game, or perhaps the next day, before reporting back to work on Wednesday.
"Once the batter gets in there, it's baseball," said Rice, who plans to deliver the game ball to his father. "It was kind of what I expected in a way. It was baseball."
'Humbled' Cowgill caps grand day for Mets
NEW YORK -- Throughout Spring Training, it appeared that Collin Cowgill would serve as a platoon outfielder and nothing more. But hoping "to find out right now what Collin Cowgill is going to be about for us," Mets manager Terry Collins revealed just before Opening Day that Cowgill will serve as his everyday center fielder.
Collins may not rethink that decision anytime soon. In his first Opening Day start, Cowgill launched his first career grand slam in the seventh inning against the Padres, turning a blowout into an 11-2 laugher and entrenching himself as the team's center fielder.
"It's really humbling," Cowgill said, reveling in the fans who chanted his name at Citi Field. "I'm grateful for it."
Though Cowgill does not consider himself much of a power hitter, his grand slam typified the type of player he is. Shooting a line drive down the left-field line, Cowgill burst out of the batter's box so quickly that he was nearly around third base by the time he realized he had hit a homer. He joked that he was only able to enjoy the last 90 feet of his jog.
Most days, Cowgill says, he is more likely to serve the Mets through his hustle and his defense -- attributes on display often throughout Spring Training.
W: Niese L: Volquez
"It is max effort in practice, it's max effort in the games," Collins said. "You just like his energy."
Cowgill may have already played that reputation into a more significant role than anyone first envisioned. Collins did not hesitate to bat him leadoff on Monday, chiefly because Padres starter Edinson Volquez is not any tougher historically on right-handers than lefties. But as long as Cowgill hits, he will continue to play center field against all comers.
"It's very fortunate," Cowgill said before the game. "I'm humbled by it. I'm ready to go, ready to get started."
That is not to say Cowgill will play every inning of every game. The Mets carried Kirk Nieuwenhuis on the Opening Day roster because they consider him their best defensive center fielder at the Major League level. They also carried Jordany Valdespin because they are intrigued by the youngster's offensive abilities. Should Cowgill falter, either of those two could steal at-bats against right-handed pitchers.
Cowgill understands that, noting that "just because I have the job now, doesn't mean I get it the whole year." In 196 career at-bats with the D-backs and A's, Cowgill has proven much more proficient against left-handed pitchers (.784 OPS) than righties (.514). So he is not taking his new everyday assignment for granted.
"I've got to play hard and play well and help this team win," he said, "and that's what I'm going to do."
When Cowgill took his first cuts of the season Monday afternoon, his father was in the stands fresh off a 12-hour drive from Kentucky. Excitement surrounds Cowgill and his family at age 27, an important crossroads in his career.
"I just know from being around these guys in camp, we're going to play hard and we're going to give the fans a fun team to watch," Cowgill said. "This is going to be a fun team to watch. It's a winning attitude, and we're going to try to create a winning atmosphere, and we've got the right guys in place right now to do that. This is exciting for us. This is the start of something special I think, and we'll see how it goes the rest of the year."
Collins trusts Tejada will rediscover his swing
NEW YORK -- Spring Training statistics may not matter, but they do create impressions. It was impossible to ignore, for example, that shortstop Ruben Tejada finished his Grapefruit League season batting .096 with three extra-base hits. After homering against Stephen Strasburg in his first spring at-bat, Tejada went 4-for-51 with two singles and two doubles.
Once a leadoff candidate for the Mets, Tejada instead slipped to eighth in the Opening Day lineup. But manager Terry Collins said before the opener that he was willing to forget all that, provided Tejada begins hitting now.
As if on cue, the shortstop mashed an RBI double in his first at-bat of the season, which Collins called the most important knock in the Mets' 11-2 win over the Padres.
"That was a huge hit," Collins said. "He's had a tough spring. To have him be the first guy that gets a big hit, I thought was good."
Saying he could "not explain what happened in Spring Training," Collins guessed that Tejada simply did not worry himself with results, knowing he was already entrenched as the starting shortstop. Instead, Collins said that Tejada worked on specific skills, such as hitting the ball the opposite way and keeping his batted balls on the ground.
"I trust my players," Collins said. "Ruben and I had a number of discussions in the last two weeks, and he reassured me he will be ready, and he will be the same player that we've seen in the past during the season."
Captain Wright receives warm Citi welcome
NEW YORK -- A late-arriving crowd had not reached full volume by early Monday afternoon, when Citi Field's public-address announcer began listing off the Mets' 2013 roster. Pitcher Matt Harvey received a modest roar of approval. Second baseman Daniel Murphy earned a nice hand.
Then the announcer said the name David Wright, and the decibel level cranked up four or five notches. Fans from throughout the tri-state area cheered, many of them piling into Citi Field in part to coronate Wright as captain.
"It's a long time coming," said Matt Hoey of Newburgh, N.Y. "He is definitely the heart and soul of the team."
Wright may have fit that description for some time, but the Mets made it official last month by naming him the fourth captain in franchise history. Joining Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and John Franco as the only Mets to earn that title, Wright set about justifying it on Opening Day against the Padres.
"Ain't no better person that could be the captain," said Nick Giampietro of Ridgewood, N.Y. "He's the ultimate Met."
Though several of his teammates shined brighter in an 11-2 win over the Padres, Wright still managed to reach base three times, steal two bases, score one run and knock in another. He also served as unofficial team spokesman after the game, engaging media members for more than a half-hour.
"All Opening Days are memorable, but this one is going to stick out above the rest, because of being announced as the captain," Wright said. "And the performance of the team today, that was pretty cool."
• The Mets officially placed four players on the 15-day disabled list prior to Monday's game: left-hander Johan Santana (torn left shoulder capsule), and right-handers Frank Francisco (recovery from right elbow surgery), Jenrry Mejia (right elbow tendon inflammation) and Shaun Marcum (right bicep tendinitis).
• Left-hander Jon Niese became the 22nd pitcher to start an Opening Day game for the Mets. Tom Seaver holds the all-time record, with 11 Opening Day starts
• David Wright spoke Monday of his pride in the Mets and that of Matt Harvey. "He reminds me of me," he said.
• Until Wright was introduced in pregame ceremonies, Tim Teufel was as warmly received as anyone in a Mets uniform.
• Rusty Staub, who stood between the mound and the plate as he threw out the first ball of the season -- people understood, he was a little rusty -- turned 69 Monday. Also marking milestones were media relations vice president Jay Horwitz, with the 33rd year of his hiring, and Ron Darling, with the 31st anniversary of his move from the Rangers to the Mets when he and Walt Terrell were acquired for Lee Mazzilli.
• When a play in the Mets' 11-2 win required catcher John Buck to remove his cap, his relative hairlessness was exposed. He was reminiscent of former Mets catcher Barry Lyons, who was more folic-ly challenged. His nickname was "Mattress Head."
• Buck scored from first base on a two-out double by Ruben Tejada in the second inning. A former Royal, Buck invoked the name of former Royals manager John Wathan, who didn't abide by the catcher's credo -- "Run until someone tags you out." Wathan could run, too. He broke the single-season stolen base record for catchers in 1982. He had 36 steals. The record, 25, had been established by John Stearns of the Mets in 1978.