CHICAGO — Jeff McNeil, a second baseman who spent most of spring training learning leftfield and was the Mets’ third baseman on Opening Day, made the first start of his major-league life in rightfield on Friday.
And with another ho-hum multihit game in the Mets’ 5-4 win over the Cubs, McNeil showed why team decision-makers are so OK with expanding his defensive versatility. The dude can hit . . . so much so that he just might be an All-Star.
McNeil went 2-for-5 with three RBIs and a run scored, launching a two-run home run to right in the third and grounding an RBI single to right in the seventh. Both put the Mets ahead, and the latter did it for good as Seth Lugo (two innings) and Edwin Diaz (one inning) finished it off. He also made a heads-up defensive play in the eighth to help Lugo out of a jam.
“This guy is playing the type of baseball that you want everybody to play. And he’s definitely been an All-Star so far,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “He has to be. It just doesn’t make any sense if he’s not. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s been an All-Star this year.”
“I don’t think there’s much more I can do to make my case,” he said. “It would be huge. It’s a dream of mine, to play in the All-Star Game. I think I’ve done enough. I think I’ve been the best possible player I can be up until this point, playing multiple positions and doing it really well.”
Rightfield felt more natural than left, McNeil said, because he is so used to standing on that side of the field as a second baseman. Nonetheless, when he switched back to left in the eighth as Callaway realigned the defense to help protect a lead, McNeil came up big again.
Willson Contreras blooped a single toward McNeil, who fielded it and caught Anthony Rizzo between second and third. McNeil ran toward the infield and threw to second to begin the inning-ending rundown.
“That’s just my baseball instincts taking over,” McNeil said.
McNeil is hitting .341, third in the majors behind the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (.358) and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich (.348) entering Friday night. He also was tied for fifth with a .407 on-base percentage.
He is cool with playing anywhere as long as he gets to step to the plate. “He always says he can play any position,” Callaway said Friday morning. “He thinks he can go throw a shutout. That’s who he is.”
Said McNeil with a smile: “I think I can pump some strikes, but I don’t know about that.”
Jason Vargas was mediocre for a second start in a row, perhaps marking the end of his nearly two-month stretch with an ERA in the low 2s. He allowed four runs (two earned) in 4 2⁄3 innings. The final two runs came on Addison Russell’s homer in the fifth. It was the first hit by a Cub other than opposing starter Yu Darvish, who had a run-scoring single in the second.
Vargas’ final pitch was a strikeout of Rizzo, who swung at a pitch that hit him. Umpires initially ruled no swing, despite a blatant swing, but Vargas hectored them into gathering and changing the call.
“I don’t know if I lobbied,” Vargas said. “I think they just got the call right. The ball hit Rizzo somewhere, and he swung, and I think for a pretty long time that means it’s a strike.”
Darvish lasted six innings and allowed four runs, including Michael Conforto's 15th homer, a tying solo shot. Two of the runs were provided by McNeil, the second baseman/third baseman/leftfielder/rightfielder/hitter.
“I’ll play first, I’ll play center, I’ll play right, I don’t really care,” McNeil said. “As long as I’m in the lineup, I’ll feel comfortable.”