CHICAGO — The Flying Squirrel got his nut again.
In the fifth inning of the Mets’ 4-0 win Thursday against the White Sox, Jeff McNeil made the sort of impressive running catch that could become more common in the coming years, launching himself into the protective netting to stop his momentum.
“That’s instincts taking over,” McNeil said.
The wild play came in the bottom of the fifth. Chicago rookie Eloy Jimenez lofted a fly ball to rightfield, and McNeil chased it down, making the catch in the narrow piece of foul territory down the line. With his next step — cognizant of the low wall — McNeil leaped into the screen, which at Guaranteed Rate Field extends to each foul pole, the White Sox’s effort to better protect fans sitting in those areas.
McNeil’s momentum carried him to the first row of seats, and the netting sprung him back onto the field. Frequently emotional on the field, McNeil played it cool this time, flinging the ball to the infield and walking back to his spot in right.
“I knew the net was there, I knew it was going to be really close,” McNeil said. “I caught it and just jumped up. That fence is really low, too, so you don’t want to try to stop there. The best-case scenario was jump into the net and try to use it for my protection.
“It was kind of fun. You’ve seen catchers and stuff go into the net, it’s gonna spring you back in.”
If the netting hadn’t been there, McNeil probably would’ve jumped anyway, he said.
“It would’ve been unfortunate for whoever is in the front row, McNeil said. “I’m going into the stands on that.”
Extended protective netting has become a hot-button issue again in recent months after a couple of high-profile instances of fans being hurt by balls batted into the stands. Last month, the White Sox became the first team to install pole-to-pole netting.
Until Thursday, manager Mickey Callaway limited his netting comments to a tepid endorsement, saying fans deserve to be safe and he is sure Major League Baseball will do the right thing (even though the league has left it up to individual teams to extend protective netting).
McNeil’s acrobatics gave Callaway a different perspective.
“That was awesome,” Callaway said. “Maybe all fields should have that. It actually saved him from maybe getting hurt. You can kind of commit, you dive into a soft net. It’s like falling into a trampoline at a circus or something. Not only saving the fans, but maybe we’re saving players.”
Juan Lagares (illness) remained unavailable Thursday, so Callaway used Aaron Altherr as a late-inning defensive replacement in centerfield . . . McNeil played Thursday after experiencing right wrist discomfort, which he said occurred on a swing on Wednesday . . . Asked about Jed Lowrie (right calf strain, various left leg issues) and Brandon Nimmo (bulging disc), Callaway didn’t offer substantive updates but was more upbeat about Nimmo. The manager said both are doing baseball activities in Port St. Lucie. “Same thing with Nim, but ramping it up pretty good,” Callaway said. “I don’t know how far he is from a rehab stint or getting in games and things like that. That’s still tough to say, but he is progressing.”