Mets’ Wright is aching for glory

When David Wright wakes up, his back usually feels stiff. Cranky, as he says. Just walking around his house or down the street, he feels the crankiness, and the only way to help soothe it, Wright has found, is his elaborate pregame routine.

For a night game, Wright arrives at the ballpark around 1 p.m. After all these years, he joked, he has found out how to turn on the clubhouse lights. Before Wright starts his workouts, he enjoys the calmness of the room. He sits down, puts his feet up and turns on the television. He relaxes and loses himself in thought.

Wright, 32, has a lot on his mind these days. Amid the New York Mets’ resurgence this year, he was forced to miss four months after tests showed he had spinal stenosis. Even now, his back allows him to play only three or four days at a time.

When the Mets clinched the National League East title Saturday, earning only the second postseason berth of Wright’s 12-year career, he could not jump around and celebrate as he wanted. During what should be among the happiest stretches of his life, Wright is constantly reminded of his condition, and how he will have to manage it the rest of his career.

“I’m not going to wake up one day and it’s going to be gone,” Wright said last week.

So each day he plays, Wright stretches and exercises for about 2 1/2 hours, at his own leisurely pace. After warming up, he sits in a hot tub and then does exercises targeting the crankiest areas of his back. He then moves on to what he describes as “active stretching”: moving, twisting, pushing against resistance.

After that, Wright does, well, more stretches, designed to keep his lower back strong. Sometimes he puts on headphones, thinks about the game that night and drifts into a meditative state, before he ever takes a swing or fields a ball.

The days when Wright could pop out of bed, stroll into the clubhouse and be ready to play are behind him.

On Saturday, as the Mets came closer to clinching, Wright found himself reminiscing about his career — from his first postseason run nine years ago, to Carlos Beltran’s striking out to end Game 7 of the 2006 NL championship series, to the move to cavernous Citi Field, to the collapses in 2007 and 2008, to the frustration of six consecutive losing seasons and his injuries.

“When I was laying on my back rehabbing for a few months this summer, this is what you dream of,” Wright said Saturday during the Mets’ celebration, as fans chanted his name.

He added: “This is what motivates you. This is what pushes you. This is what drives you.”

During his rehabilitation this season in California, Wright grew so concerned that he sought advice from Don Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager, whose playing career was shortened by a back injury and whose team the Mets will most likely face in an NL division series.

“He had a lot of the same symptoms as me, a lot of the same problems as me,” Wright said recently. “He talked about how he went about his business. He was doing a lot of the same exercises I’m doing now, even to this day. It kind of put my mind at ease. Like, hey, you know what? This guy was pretty successful after having this.”

Like Mattingly, though, Wright had to reduce his workload.

Instead of taking 100 swings in the batting cage, Wright takes about 30. His work in the cage is more purposeful. His coaches pitch to him overhand, to best simulate game situations. And when his swing seems off, instead of feeling it out, he talks it over with Kevin Long, the hitting coach, who watches film of him between innings.

In the field, Wright takes about 20 percent fewer ground balls than before, said Tim Teufel, the infielders’ coach. But again, Wright takes each grounder with a purpose.

“He’s a little more conscious of his form now,” said Eric Campbell, the backup third baseman, who often takes grounders behind Wright. “When nothing hurts and you’re out there taking ground balls, sometimes you mess around, make throws off balance. Now he’s conscious about making sure he’s squared up every time, doing the right thing.”

Wright continues to stretch during games. Before an at-bat, he crouches, bows his head, leans on his bat and holds the position for several seconds. After rising to his feet, he lifts his knees and twists his torso. He crouches again when he takes his spot at third base at the start of an inning.

Even after all that work, Wright said, his back feels only “pretty decent” and “manageable.” But since Aug. 24, when Wright rejoined the team, the results have been promising: He is batting .299 with four home runs and 13 runs batted in, including a three-run homer in the ninth inning of Saturday’s 10-2 victory over the Reds to seal the NL East title.

“Same old David,” Teufel said.

The difference is that when Wright feels too sore to play, he does not fight manager Terry Collins over days off. Collins notices that Wright’s swing and gait look more rigid at times. His teammates think he is hurting more than he lets on. It remains unclear whether Wright can produce every day as he once did.

“When you say every day — is he playing four days a week?” Collins said. “Five days a week? I don’t know until that time comes. I think he’ll put up the numbers that we’re accustomed to seeing. But along with that will be days off.”

Once the season ends, Wright plans to meet with Dr. Robert Watkins, the orthopedic surgeon who oversaw his rehabilitation, and devise a plan for the offseason and perhaps a new routine for next year and beyond, something that can prepare him to play and maintain his health into retirement. Mattingly retired at 34. Wright will turn 33 in December.

“I still really enjoy what I do,” Wright said. “I’d like to play as long as I enjoy it, as long as it doesn’t feel like I’m coming to work. When it starts feeling like, you know, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work today’ — I don’t want to think like that. As long as I’m having fun, and obviously winning now is pretty fun. I still enjoy the nuances of the game. I really look forward to playing every day. I look forward to putting the work in over the offseason.”

Even with all the exercises and stretching?

“I wish I didn’t have to do the work,” Wright said, grinning. “But if I want to play, I’ve got to do it."