This hellish season for Jeff McNeil has featured it all — a slow start, a strained hamstring, a demotion in the lineup, a position change forced upon him after the acquisition of Javier Baez. It has been by any standard the worst year of his career, so much so that with the Mets entering an offseason of potentially immense change, McNeil’s future is among the question marks.
And then there are nights like Sunday, when the Mets beat the Phillies, 3-2, for their first win in a week and McNeil provided a reminder of what he so often has been: a really, really good hitter.
McNeil finished 2-for-3 with the go-ahead home run and two runs scored as the Mets (73-77) snapped a five-game losing streak that matched their longest of the season. They remained 5 ½ games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East and seven games behind the Cardinals, who hold the final NL wild-card spot.
After his three-hit game Wednesday against the Cardinals, this was McNeil’s second strong showing in four games — late-season hints, perhaps, at a return to his regular form.
"I’ve done it for three years. I’ve done it for over 1,000 at-bats. I know I’m a very good hitter. A few hundred at-bats doesn’t make me a bad hitter at all," he said. "I feel like I’ve taken some very good at-bats this year. Haven’t quite had the results that have been there in the past. It’s a year I can try to forget about but learn from at the same time. Won’t let it happen again in the future."
The Mets and Phillies (76-73) were tied when McNeil began the bottom of the seventh against righthander Kyle Gibson (6 2⁄3 innings, three runs). Gibson left a changeup on the outer half of the plate and McNeil pulled it an estimated 417 feet to right-centerfield. It was his first home run since Aug. 1 and the Mets’ first lead since Tuesday.
He paused at the plate to admire his work before starting his stone-faced journey around the bases.
"The first pitch [Gibson] threw me was actually a changeup, and I thought that was a very good pitch to hit," he said. "I was a little frustrated I missed that one. But he ended up throwing me the same pitch, same changeup. Didn’t miss that one."
McNeil also ignited the tying rally in the fifth. After he singled, Tomas Nido doubled to put two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Pinch hitter Dominic Smith — also having a bad year, his future also something of an uncertainty going into this winter — ripped a two-run double into the rightfield corner. That took Rich Hill (4 2⁄3 innings, two runs) off the hook for the potential loss.
With two weeks to go, McNeil has a .252 average and .683 OPS. Those are far lower than his career marks entering the year: .319 average, .884 OPS.
The reasons could be many. Maybe he has been unlucky, as he and the Mets would say, based on the quality of his batted balls. Maybe his leg issues caused him more problems than they are willing to acknowledge publicly. Maybe batting in the bottom third of the order — early in the season and again recently — cost him confidence.
McNeil, the most outwardly emotional Mets player, particularly when struggling, said he did a bad job this year of letting bad at-bats or bad results snowball into bad weeks.
"He gets very anxious at times with not getting some results," manager Luis Rojas said. "But tonight is a good night. A guy that can get streaky is him. He can finish really strong and be the Jeff that we know. And next year we’ll see the Jeff that we know."
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