NEW YORK (AP) – Doug Mientkiewicz hit so well on a minor league rehab stint, he nearly was the Gulf Coast League player of the week.

Not exactly what the man who caught the last out of the 2004 World Series was looking for.

Mientkiewicz got out of the Florida heat and was back in the starting lineup Saturday night against the Atlanta Braves. The slick-fielding first baseman, who has slumped at the plate in his first National League season, had been out since June 26 because of a strained right hamstring.

He was bothered more on defense, the biggest part of his game.

“Even when I did it, it didn’t hurt to run that bad. But you start taking away my ability to stretch, it kind of limits what I can do,” he said. “I’m not going to come back and be Jose Reyes. Hopefully I can score from third on a triple.”

Mientkiewicz was hitting only .219 with nine homers and 24 RBIs before getting hurt. He was forced to split time at first base despite the added defense he provides in a young New York infield.

“In the whole scheme of things, I only have 200 at-bats,” he said. “I still have a lot of at-bats to go and I can turn a lot of bad numbers into pretty good ones if I play the way I’m capable of playing.”

Mientkiewicz got off to a good start Saturday, singling in his first at-bat.

He went 5-for-10 with a home run and five RBIs in four rehab games this week under what he called “Equator heat” in Port St. Lucie.

That was nothing compared to the heat he saw from Gary Carter, a Hall of Fame player with the Mets who is now trying his hand as a minor league manager.

“He scared me to death,” Mientkiewicz said upon his return to Shea Stadium on Saturday. “He was yelling so much I said I want to get off the field as soon as I can so I don’t get yelled at.”‘

Mientkiewicz had added incentive to get back to New York. He was 8-for-28 with two homers and seven RBIs in eight games before his injury.

Even after falling what he said was two at-bats short of qualifying for Gulf Coast player of the week honors, Mientkiewicz was on a plane early Saturday morning and was pleased to see his name in the lineup when he walked into the clubhouse.

“My whole goal from now on is to just be able to get Willie’s (manager Willie Randolph) confidence back to put me in there every day and perform,” Mientkiewicz said.

After losing out on the Carlos Delgado sweepstakes during the offseason, the Mets acquired Mientkiewicz from the Boston Red Sox. They knew he’d add a lot defensively, but they hoped for a better bat at the key corner position.

Mientkiewicz, a left-handed hitter, was forced to sit out games against lefty pitchers because Randolph was looking for more offense.

Chris Woodward, Marlon Anderson, Jose Offerman, and Miguel Cairo have all started at first base recently. None provides the fine fielding that Mientkiewicz can supply.

Randolph was noncommittal when asked how much Mientkiewicz would play in the future.

“We’ve got some guys that have done a good job there,” Randolph said. “So hopefully we’ll get a contribution and I’ll see how I feel.”

To make room on the roster, the Mets designated veteran infielder Brian Daubach for assignment.

New York also optioned lefty reliever Royce Ring to Triple-A Norfolk and purchased the contract of right-hander Juan Padilla, who had served as the Tides’ closer.

“No specific role. Just like everybody else,” Randolph said of Padilla. “It’s another arm that can help us get people out. He’s had a nice year in Triple-A, so far, so I’m hoping that he can continue.”

AP-ES-07-16-05 1945EDT

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