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Mets continue to surprise with 'mystery' players

Few expected much from the New York Mets this season.

Then again, these aren't exactly the Mets everybody expected to see.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Mike Baxter. Jeremy Hefner.

Vinny Rottino, Rob Johnson, Jordany Valdespin, Omar Quintanilla, Mike Nickeas.

Who are these guys and how do they keep winning big league ballgames?

Two months into the season, the no-name Mets are one of baseball's biggest surprises. Led by David Wright, Johan Santana and a mystery cast of supporting characters, New York is 28-23 and only 1 1/2 games out of first place in the tightly bunched NL East.

"Obviously, we're looking forward to getting some of our front-line players back. But what these guys have shown us is that they can play here," second-year manager Terry Collins said.

Turning to a string of subs and fill-ins, the Mets are almost a real-life version of "Major League," the hilarious movie about a band of baseball rejects who carry the Cleveland Indians to the playoffs. About the only thing missing is Bob Uecker behind the microphone -- or Wesley Snipes running sprints in his pajamas.

No joke, though: New York is playing sound fundamental baseball.

"I think our minor league staff has done a great job of getting these guys prepared to come here," said Collins, who also deserves plenty of praise. "I think one of the things that helps out is when they walk in that locker room and they look around and they see friends. They see guys they know. I think it makes a big difference."

New York is minus three injured regulars: left fielder Jason Bay, shortstop Ruben Tejada and catcher Josh Thole. Starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey is out for the season following elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Add in the injuries to backups Ronny Cedeno and Justin Turner, and New York has used six shortstops already this season following the departure of All-Star Jose Reyes as a free agent in December.

"Everybody said we didn't have depth. I think that's decent depth. So, guys coming up and performing is great to see," chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. "Our farm system was better than anybody thought."

With the Mets in dire need of early reinforcements, unheralded youngsters and minor league journeymen have stepped in and produced immediately.

Nieuwenhuis came up from Triple-A Buffalo when center fielder Andres Torres was injured on opening day and has kept himself in the lineup by hitting .294.

Baxter, who grew up 10 minutes from where Citi Field stands, won the final bench spot in spring training and did so well as a pinch-hitter that he's now batting leadoff against right-handers.

Miguel Batista earned a win in Pelfrey's place and so did Hefner, punctuating his first major league victory with a stunning home run.

Valdespin's first career hit was a pinch-hit, three-run homer off Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning that sent New York to a 5-2 victory May 7.

Quintanilla was called up from the minors this week and got three hits in his Mets debut.

"They're all here because they're worthy of being here," 37-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said.

Of course, the stars have shined, too.

Wright is batting .365 with five homers and 30 RBIs. Despite a recent slump, he was tied for the major league lead in on-base percentage (.463) and ranked among the NL leaders in several other categories entering tonight's series opener with the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field.

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