Jeff McNeil has only been in the big leagues for a month, but to hear Mickey Callaway tell it, the 26-year-old rookie already has a reputation: really annoying to pitch to.
The Mets’ 6-3 win against the Giants on Tuesday makes that look even truer. McNeil went 4-for-4 with the go-ahead double in the eighth inning, upping his slash line to .326/.388/.472 in 27 major-league games.
“They haven’t figured him out, because he’s hard to figure out. Because he can barrel up a lot of different pitches,” said Callaway, a former pitcher and pitching coach. “Those hitters like that, man, they’re tough when you’re a pitcher. They’re scrappy little guys and you hate facing them.
“If you’re around the plate, he has the ability to go down and get one away and hit it up the middle; up and away, slap it down the leftfield line; pitch him in, he’s got the ability to turn on it; make a mistake, he’s going to hit it and put the barrel on it. Even his outs are pretty hard.”
Michael Conforto added a three-run homer as insurance and four RBIs on the night, and Steven Matz helped quell qualms about his second half with his best start in about a month: five innings, two runs.
But McNeil was the catalyst of the Mets’ offense, even when nobody else was hitting. His single in the seventh started a two-run rally, the team finally breaking through against righthander Chris Stratton (5.37 ERA). Those runs were the Mets’ first in 19 innings.
McNeil’s double an inning later saved the Mets (55-70) from what threatened to be another night of immense offensive futility. In a tie game, Jose Reyes led off the eighth with a triple, but Todd Frazier and Amed Rosario were unable to get him in.
The Giants’ Tony Watson offered McNeil a first-pitch fastball, exactly what hel was expecting a day after seeing three pitches, all sliders, from the lefthander.
“I’ve seen that, I got a hit off of it,” McNeil said. “So I was kind of expecting a fastball there, and I got it.”
The Mets are giving McNeil a look as their starting second baseman for the final third of the season, an effort to see how his ability plays at the highest level after a big season in Double-A and Triple-A. Callaway said he initially wasn’t sure if McNeil’s skill set would translate to major-league success, but the type of hitter he is lends itself to a quick transition.
“You just never know until they get up there and see how they handle the lights and the pressure and the pitching,” Callaway said. “A lot of contact guys, though, I will say, come from the minor leagues up to the big leagues where [pitchers] are around the plate a little more and they have more success than a free-swinging guy.”
McNeil’s philosophy is simple.
“Put the ball in play,” he said, “and good things happen.”