Growing up in the Dominican Republic, New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares created his own version of baseball.
Lagares, who joined the 51s on Monday to continue his major league rehabilitation stint for a pulled right hamstring, said he and his friends used palm branches for bats and tightly wound bundles of plastic bags for balls.
Plastic bags, or whatever else Lagares and his childhood pals could find, also served as bases on their makeshift field, which was usually overrun by tall grass.
“We didn’t have a field like that,” Lagares said as he looked out at pristine Cashman Field from the Las Vegas dugout Tuesday before the 51s’ 7-5 loss to the Reno Aces.
“We had to play in any spot we (could). It had a lot of grass,” he said, raising his hand to his chest. “Sometimes you can’t find the ball. But we had fun.”
Once the slick-fielding Lagares emerged from the tall grass to patrol center field in plush pro ballparks, he has had no problem tracking down just about any ball hit his way.
Despite opening last season with Las Vegas, Lagares finished third in the majors in outfield assists, with 15 — which was a Mets franchise rookie record and the most by a New York player since Cliff Floyd had 15 in 2005.
Lagares also was named an outfielder on the 2013 Wilson National League Defensive Player of the Year team.
“He’s probably one of the elite center fielders in baseball right now,” 51s manager Wally Backman said.
“His defense is unbelievable. The routes he takes, the reads he gets on the ball, the accuracy with the arm strength that he has.”
Lagares, 25, was leading the Mets in batting — with a .314 (16-for-51) average, a home run and seven RBIs through 13 games — when he pulled his right hamstring during a game in Arizona on April 14.
He was placed on the disabled list April 15 and got some at-bats in extended spring training before playing seven innings in center for Single-A St. Lucie on Sunday to start his rehab stint for New York.
He played all nine innings in center and batted leadoff for Las Vegas on Monday, going 1-for-4 with a single in a 3-0 loss to Reno.
Lagares reported no ill effects Tuesday, when he lined a pinch-hit double to right-center in the fifth and scored on a double by Wilmer Flores.
“My leg feels loose. It feels good,” Lagares said. “I’ve been running a lot, and I don’t feel anything.”
Backman said the plan is to play Lagares nine innings again today — when he’s eligible to come off the DL — against the Aces.
Mets manager Terry Collins said Lagares might rejoin the Mets in Colorado for their upcoming series, which starts Thursday against the Rockies.
“If everything goes well, that’s probably the idea,” Backman said. “He looked good to me (Monday). He ran good. I think that’s the biggest thing they’re looking for, if he can go 100 percent, and I think he showed that last night.”
Lagares said he’s back at full strength.
“I think right now I’m 100 percent,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Backman first managed Lagares in 2011, when he hit a career-high .370 in 38 games for Double-A Binghamton, and said the former free swinger — who hit .346 in 17 games for Las Vegas last season — has made big strides at the plate.
“His plate discipline from his past years has continually improved,” Backman said. “I think that’s why he’s hitting .300 in the big leagues right now. He’s just gotten better every year.
“I can’t tell you he’s going to hit .300 this year, but I think it’s in him to be able to do that.”
Lagares, who hit .242 in 121 games for New York last season, said the experience has helped him improve this year.
“After you play (in the majors), you feel better. You face the same pitchers you faced last year and you have some idea,” he said. “You see a lot of pitching. I think that’s the key. The time I had there last year has helped me a lot this year.”
■ NOTE — Reno (14-12) scored five runs in the fourth inning and capitalized on four errors by the 51s (18-8), who have lost three straight games for the first time this season.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.