WASHINGTON -- It could not have been pleasant for Juan Lagares to spend most of this week confined to the bench, helpless to stop the Mets from spiraling further into a losing muck. Manager Terry Collins kept insisting that Lagares was his starting center fielder, but Lagares didn't play. A relatively minor two-week slump had effectively stripped him of his job.
On Saturday, Lagares set a rather explosive plan in motion to win it back. Homering, driving in three runs and robbing a home run on defense, Lagares carried Bartolo Colon and the Mets to a 5-2 win over the Nationals.
"I know I can play," Lagares said. "That's what I do. That's what I'm here for."
Reality, for Lagares, seemed more akin to fantasy. Before even stepping into center field, Lagares came through with an opposite-field RBI single off Gio Gonzalez, giving the Mets an early three-run lead in the first.
Two innings later, Lagares hit a two-run homer to extend the lead to five. Then in the sixth, after the Nationals had clawed back to within three, Lagares skied over the center-field wall to rob Jayson Werth of a leadoff homer.
"Great catch, that's a great catch," Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "He's a fantastic athlete."
Such defense is what the Mets have come to expect from Lagares over the last year. The offense was what Collins had vainly been trying to extract from Eric Young Jr., Chris Young and even Bobby Abreu, playing those three more often -- in the case of the Youngs, far more often -- than Lagares. The manager's justification was that Lagares was slumping, batting .185 over his past 33 plate appearances, and therefore less likely to free the Mets from their offensive doldrums.
That is how Lagares found himself on the bench for four of the Mets' previous five games.
"I just tried to be positive, tried to do my work in the cage and tried to be ready for my opportunity," Lagares said. "I think that's the key -- be positive and keep working. That's all we can control in the game."
By Friday, Collins found himself facing a near-constant stream of criticism from those desperate for Lagares to play. Fans on Twitter established a grassroots "Free Lagares" campaign, posting pictures of themselves begging Collins to play him.
On Saturday, Collins finally did. And the results were beyond reasonable expectation.
It helped that, for the first time in days, the Mets received meaningful contributions from all corners of their roster. Colon was strong, rebounding from two consecutive poor outings to limit the Nationals to two runs -- both on Ian Desmond's homer in the fourth -- in eight innings. New closer Jenrry Mejia was also stout, pitching the ninth for his first career save and calling it a "fun" experience. The offense, meanwhile, produced its finest output in five games.
That last part was largely -- but not entirely -- thanks to Lagares. Reserve infielder Eric Campbell opened the scoring with a two-run single off Gonzalez, who lasted just three innings. Campbell, Daniel Murphy and David Wright all contributed multi-hit days, joining Lagares in that club.
But mostly, they were all just impressed with Lagares. The catch to rob Werth drew rave reviews -- "He does something like that every day," Campbell gushed -- and the two-run homer singlehandedly matched the Mets' offensive output over their previous three games combined. Those highlights coalesced into a banner day for Lagares, who earned himself at least a few more at-bats to establish himself in Collins' outfield.
The manager laughed when asked after Saturday's game if Lagares would play Sunday.
"Oh I knew that question was coming," Collins said, affirming that yes, of course, Lagares will. "He had a good game. That's great. That's why we put him in there."
For what seemed like the first time in weeks, laughs and smiles were easy to come by in the Mets' postgame clubhouse. Whether that will continue remains to be seen. Lagares is not this good -- nobody is -- but on Saturday, he was clearly the best player on the field. He breathed life into a team that desperately needed it. He oozed confidence that he can continue doing so.
As Lagares broke down the art of hitting and robbing home runs in the Mets' postgame clubhouse, he was asked which he preferred.
"I like to do both," Lagares said grinning. "Like today."