March 27, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) Injuries hit the New York Mets where it hurt last season, and they're becoming a pain again.

With opening day fast approaching, those familiar reports of aches and irritation began cropping up at camp. Part-time center fielder Juan Lagares strained an oblique and, more unsettling, pitcher Steven Matz was scratched from a scheduled start because of tenderness in his left elbow.

Matz, who underwent Tommy John surgery early in his professional career, had bone spurs removed from the elbow last fall. His status for the beginning of the season was uncertain.

Oft-injured captain David Wright was already out indefinitely, sidelined by a shoulder impingement following neck surgery in June. Filling his spot at third base again will be veteran Jose Reyes.

''I think we're deeper than we've ever been,'' manager Terry Collins said early in spring training. ''It always seems like at the end of spring, someone is always dinged up. Now we've got replacements for them.''

On a team with October intentions, last year's hard luck remains a fresh memory.

Three members of the young and talented rotation were unable to make it through the 2016 season, including Matz. Every experienced regular besides outfielder Curtis Granderson spent time on the disabled list, in addition to Lagares and productive sub Wilmer Flores.

All those ailments left the Mets and their makeshift lineup in a bind, snarling the team's attempt to repeat as National League champions.

Riding ace Noah Syndergaard and a handful of unheralded rookies, New York still managed to reach the playoffs, where it lost 3-0 at home to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card game.

''What we did last year took a lot of character, and that character is back. It's a good way to get started,'' Collins said.

Now, New York has its sights set on making a third straight postseason appearance for the first time in franchise history.

With four starting pitchers coming off surgery, the Mets have reason to believe they can wind up back in the World Series - if only they could stay out of Dr. David Altchek's office. And while the entire rotation remains under team control next year, this could be the New York finale for several other important pieces: Granderson, Reyes, first baseman Lucas Duda, second baseman Neil Walker, outfielder Jay Bruce and relievers Addison Reed and Fernando Salas all have expiring contracts this season.

''We have the potential to be better than we have been,'' general manager Sandy Alderson said. ''I'm as excited if not more so this spring than I have been since I've been here.''

Things to know about the Mets heading into their opener Monday against Atlanta at Citi Field:

CLOSING CALL: As the Mets try to overtake defending champion Washington in the NL East, All-Star closer Jeurys Familia will sit out the first 15 games after accepting a suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic violence policy. Reed (106 career saves) will likely slide into the ninth-inning role, but that could stress the whole bullpen.

READY OR NOT: Besides the fluid status of Matz, the biggest question marks in a fragile rotation are Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey. Wheeler, who has missed two full seasons following Tommy John surgery, finally shook off some rust late in spring training - after Matz's injury potentially opened a door for him. Harvey struggled much of the spring, then was better in his past two outings. The former ace went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA last season prior to surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: Even before Matz's injury was revealed, 23-year-old Robert Gsellman had all but locked up a rotation spot with an impressive spring. The long-haired righty with the power sinker helped save a depleted pitching staff down the stretch last season, going 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA in eight games (seven starts). Because he threw only 44 2/3 innings, he retains his rookie status this year.

NEW LOOK: The Mets brought back four free agents, including Walker and slugger Yoenis Cespedes, but made no significant additions to the major league roster of a team that finished 87-75. The biggest change during the offseason was the departure of popular All-Star pitcher Bartolo Colon, the hefty fan favorite who signed with NL East-rival Atlanta. Colon, who turns 44 in May, led the Mets in wins (15), starts (33) and innings (191 2/3) last season. He won 44 games for them over the past three years and will be missed. The Mets will see him soon enough - he's scheduled to start the second game of the year at Citi Field.

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AP freelance writer Bill Whitehead contributed to this report from Port St. Lucie, Florida.

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