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Mets' Wright back to playing like one of game's best

Strikeouts? What strikeouts? David Wright insists he's never talked about them. Just like he's not been the one talking about whether he's been spooked by the deep, high fences at Citi Field or by getting cranked in the noggin with a pitch last year either. Those topics, of course, get plenty of play in the New York media. So has the Mets' terrific starting pitching and now, the big bat in the middle of the batting order.

Wright is the human version of Mr. Met these days, the No. 1 homegrown player. And after a miserable May, he's playing like one of baseball's best again in June. No coincidence where his team is going in the standings.

"I feel like I have a good plan going into the game now and I just try to execute that plan," Wright said last week at Progressive Field. "You get a couple hits and all of a sudden you start feeling pretty good about yourself. The dugout feels good picking up a couple crooked numbers on the scoreboard and you start rolling."

Wright was in a 3-for-23 slide and his average had dropped to .244 on May 30. He ended May with 65 strikeouts and just 47 hits and was leading all of baseball in whiffs. He finally found his stride by going 4 for 6 on the last two days of the month and hasn't stopped in June.

Wright entered the weekend batting .386 with 19 RBIs this month. And he has just 13 strikeouts. In April and May, Wright combined for two three-hit games. He had five in the first 15 days of this month.

"I could care less about my strikeouts. That's not me," he said. "You haven't heard anything about the strikeouts from me at all. If I'm driving the ball, driving in runs and scoring runs, that's fine with me. You start seeing the ball well and you go up there and have that confidence. A lot of hitting is just confidence and feeling good about yourself. You get a couple hits with runners in scoring position and all of a sudden you go up there expecting to drive runs in."

"He is comfortably relaxed," said Mets manager Jerry Manuel. "You don't see the anxiety, especially when he gets two strikes."

All the booing at home seems a long way away now. Wright struck out at least once for 15 straight games in May -- including a 1-for-10, 8-K flameout against the Giants -- and had a 13-game stretch in April with at least one whiff. But he entered the weekend with just nine strikeouts in the last 12 games.

Instead of a strikeout machine, he's become a run-producing machine. Seven straight games of at least one RBI, with nine driven in over one three-game stretch last week. He leads the National League in RBIs and only Miguel Cabrera and Vladimir Guerrero have more among American Leaguers. And Wright is now just third in the NL in strikeouts.

Playing half his games in Citi Field, Wright might never be a 30-home run guy again. But there's no reason why he can't go back to being a 100-RBI guy. He struggled mightily last year with just 10 homers and 72 RBIs, easily his career lows for a full season. He's already exceeded the home run count this year and might reach 72 RBIs by the all-star break this time.

"That's what I feel is my job in this offense: To drive runs in, score runs and put myself in scoring position," he said. "Whether it's driving the ball to the gaps or stealing some bases. I feel like that's how I kind of grade what I bring to this team good or bad. If I strike out, you don't want to but that's not something I'm going to go up there and consciously change.

"I don't feel that's the kind of hitter I am. If I'm driving runs in, if I'm scoring runs. If the home runs come, great. If not, no big deal. If the strikeouts are up there, no big deal with that either. That's kind of how I grade what I'm doing."

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>Pirates turn to Indy

With little else to play for this year, the pathetic Pirates have started calling up prospects from Indianapolis, which hit town Thursday pretty depleted over the last two weeks. Pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Jose Tabata came up last week and the latest call-up was third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. He made his big-league debut Wednesday after batting .280 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs for Indy.

Manager John Russell and GM Neal Huntington were thought to be on the immediate chopping block last week until word leaked from owner Bob Nutting they had actually had their contracts extended through 2011. Oops. An 11-game losing streak usually puts the manager in jeopardy and Huntington has frittered away too much money, including the $4.85 million he paid to Aki Iwamura (designated for assignment last week).

"I look at this money as my own. Every single dollar we don't spend efficiently and effectively impacts me personally," Huntington said Wednesday. "This isn't Monopoly money. This is real dollars. Every dollar we don't spend effectively in one area is a dollar we could have spent effectively somewhere else. These hits are real. Within the industry, these hits are relatively minor, but for me and for us, it's real."

Former Indians and Bisons manager Eric Wedge is a name getting floated to replace Russell and Wedge is also getting plenty of notice with Baltimore. He actually interviewed with the Orioles last week and so have Bobby Valentine and Buck Showalter.

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>Local players drafted

Found three local draft connections from the recent picks:

* Cheektowaga graduate Jeremy Nowak, an outfielder at Mount Olive (N.C.) College, went in the 13th round (388th overall) to Baltimore and will play for Abeerden (Md.), the Cal Ripken-owned team in the New York-Penn League. Nowak had a school-record .446 batting average and opened the season with a 35-game hitting streak, second-longest in Division II history to start a year.

* St. Bonaventure junior shortstop Jesse Bosnik also went in the 13th round, going 402nd overall to the Dodgers. Bosnik batted .387 and had a hit in 39 of 48 games. His 19-game hit streak to start the year was the longest in program history.

* Canisius junior infielder Steve McQuail went in the 30th round to Toronto (906th overall). He's the fifth Golden Griffin drafted in the last three years and the first junior. McQuail batted a team-high .397, set program records with 89 hits and 81 RBIs.

The Yankees are expected to sign top pick Cito Culver today. Culver, a shortstop from Irondequoit High outside Rochester, graduates from high school today and will get a $940,000 bonus. He's passing on a scholarship offer from Maryland.

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>Around the horn

* Tough to see the twilight of Chipper Jones' career going like this as the Braves longtime standout seems almost certain to retire after the season. The Braves are getting more production at third base from the likes of Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad than Jones, who entered the weekend at .234.

"I'm used to being in the middle of everything, but it hasn't been happening," said Jones, who is owed $28 million for 2011 and 2012 and has reportedly been working on a settlement agreement with the team.

* Mike Pelfrey and Phil Hughes met Saturday both holding 9-1 records. It's the first time a Met and a Yankee had ever won nine of their first 10 decisions in the same season.

* Former Bisons player and manager and deposed Indians third base coach Joel Skinner directed Double-A Akron to a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that ended last weekend. The Aeros, defending Eastern League champions, had gotten off to a 20-30 start.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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