Jeff McNeil, as outwardly angry and fiery as any Met when he encounters even fleeting failure, was all smiles Wednesday.
He was a mere observer for most of the regular-season finale, sitting in the dugout, jacket on, ostensibly so he could rest before the playoffs, as goings-on across the country made it official: He was the majors’ 2022 batting champion. His .326 average led all qualified hitters and edged out the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman, who finished at .325.
Midway through the Mets’ 9-2 win over the Nationals, when Freeman’s 3-for-4 game went final and with it the relevant statistics, the Mets displayed a graphic on the scoreboard to alert the fans to McNeil’s feat. He popped onto the field to salute the cheering announced crowd of 27,298.
“It’s definitely a dream come true. This is one of my goals in baseball, to win a batting title,” said McNeil, who in 2021 batted .251, more than 50 points below his career norm. “It was a bunch of hard work and trying to get back to the player I knew I could be after last year . . . I wanted to get back to who I am and was lucky enough to be rewarded for that.”
Manager Buck Showalter said: “That’s a heck of an accomplishment. He earned it all the way.”
McNeil is the second Met player to have the highest average in the league. Jose Reyes did it in 2011, when he bunted for a hit and immediately exited the last game.
For his excellence, McNeil will receive a prize: a car from Francisco Lindor, his double-play partner.
Lindor said Wednesday he would make good on his promise from May 5 that he would gift McNeil a vehicle if he won the batting title, at the time an off-the-cuff remark in the excited aftermath of the Mets scoring seven runs in the ninth inning to steal an 8-7 win from the Phillies.
“It was a long time ago,” Lindor said Wednesday. “Everybody has made sure I haven’t forget. And everybody is making sure I buy him a car. I will get him a car. I didn’t specify what car it was.”
McNeil said: “I’m sure he’s got something up his sleeve. Hopefully something pretty cool.”
His path to the title looked narrow over the summer. Entering play on July 30, for example, he had a .287 average — well behind Freeman (.319) and the leader at the time, Paul Goldschmidt, who was hitting .334.
But then McNeil hit .378 over the remainder of the season. Freeman was steady over that stretch, while Goldschmidt fell off.
A key, McNeil said, was when he cut his right thumb in mid-August. That required stitches but he played through it, ending up splitting his grip — separating his hands by a few inches when holding the bat, so as to limit the thumb pain. The result was “just trying to pepper balls around the ballpark,” he said, and that led to a higher average.
The last day of the regular season featured intrigue in a cross-country boxscore-watching sort of way.
McNeil was not in the lineup, a decision Showalter said was made by Showalter. But the manager noted before the game that “there’s a way that he might play” anyway. Freeman, playing against the Rockies, needed to go 4-for-4 to edge ahead of McNeil. If that happened, McNeil was available to come off the bench and try for a hit to get back in front.
With the Mets in a rain delay for nearly two hours, McNeil watched as Freeman got a hit in his first at-bat, then another in his second. The threat was real. Moments later, the Mets made it official: Their first pitch was set for 6 p.m.
Freeman wound up making an out in his third plate appearance, all but ending the race, before getting one last hit in his final chance. No matter. McNeil entered as a defensive replacement in the eighth but did not bat.
“At that time, you get a little bit nervous,” McNeil said of monitoring Freeman’s early at-bats. “He was swinging the bat well. Four hits is normal for him. His third at-bat, right before the [Mets] game, a good number of us were sitting in the locker room here watching it. He put a good swing on it. I’m lucky that one stayed in the park.
“I expect a lot out of myself. I’m hard on myself. I think everyone knows that. I expect to be a .300 hitter every single year. This is where I want to be. This is the player I want to be for the rest of my career. I expect this out of myself and hopefully can continue that going forward.”