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Mets need Francisco Lindor to give them what they paid for

Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, right, throws to first

Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, right, throws to first for a double play after forcing out the Rays' Randy Arozarena, left, at second base during the fifth inning on Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla. Credit: AP/Steve Nesius

In desperate times, Francisco Lindor can’t be a LeBron James or Tom Brady. Somebody who drops 60 while headlining the "B’’ squad or throws for four touchdowns despite being part of a skeleton-crew 22.

Baseball doesn’t work that way.

And though Lindor is mathematically correct in saying he’s only "one of nine" on any given night, he couldn’t be more wrong right now when it comes to a Mets lineup devastated by injuries. We know Lindor’s $341 million contract doesn’t kick in until next year, but Steve Cohen’s franchise has never needed its franchise player more than this particular week.

The Mets entered the Atlanta series with 12 players on the injured list after Monday’s additions of Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto, both with hamstring strains. The lineup had Kevin Pillar (who was hit in the face by a pitch during the Mets’ 3-1 win) hitting cleanup, followed by backups, with Taijaun Walker hitting eighth and Johneshwy Fargas making his MLB debut and manning centerfield.

That meant Lindor couldn’t afford a repeat of the virtual no-show series he just had during the weekend sweep by the Rays at Tropicana Field (1-for-12, one homer, six strikeouts, one costly bad-hop turf bounce) — and neither could the Mets. Just when it seemed Lindor had turned the corner during the seven-game winning streak, he went careening off the cliff again. He went 0-for-3 with two walks Monday, dropping his slash line to .185/.304/.274.

As usual, Lindor was unflinchingly pleasant in a pregame Zoom call, but he offered little insight as to why he’s struggled to this degree. The flop at the Trop? Just add it to the pile. Lindor says he’s the same at the plate. Nothing different that he can identify.

"Did they change the balls in Tampa? Did they make them smaller? Because I didn’t see them over there," he said, smiling. "It’s part of the game. I want to have success. I’m not having much right now.

"When it comes to what I’m feeling, I’m feeling like Francisco Lindor, man. I just haven’t got the hits that I want — that everybody wants. It is what it is. You just have to continue to compete and enjoy the ride. The team is in a good spot right now, so that makes me happy,"

That’s not entirely true. Yes, the Mets (now 19-16) left for Atlanta still atop the NL East, which is always a plus. But they also lost nearly as many starters (two) as games (three) during that visit to St. Petersburg, so there was no minimizing the damage.

Obviously, Lindor is an extremely positive guy. You don’t get the nickname "Mr. Smile" for being a gloomy pessimist. Eventually, however, a team has to lean on somebody with credentials like Lindor’s — and the Mets need more than his relentlessly bright outlook to get them through this turbulent stretch.

It’s astonishing that Lindor had three homers and eight RBIs with almost a quarter of the season done. You don’t require a calculator to figure out that 162-game pace.

The Mets reached first place on the strength of their pitching staff, but a sizable chunk of what little offense they have produced was supplied by hitters now on the IL. When Lindor talked Monday of "passing the baton," the Mets are quickly running out of hands to take it from him.

Too often, Lindor has been fumbling the baton, so I asked him if there is something different about the pressure on him now. Not only with a new team and a new record-setting contract, but these new challenges presented by a roster that recently has crumbled around him.

"I don’t play tennis, I don’t play golf. I’m not by myself," Lindor said. "I play a team sport. So understanding that my teammates are really good at what they do and I don’t have to be the man every single night. I just got to be a part of the puzzle."

The Mets could use Lindor "being the man" a little more frequently. As for Monday night, he was in the leadoff spot for only the third time this season, followed by the Mets’ top two in RBIs: Pete Alonso (18) and Dominic Smith (14). If the Mets don’t get those top three involved, that’s putting way too much responsibility on the latter half of the lineup.

No disrespect to Pillar and Jonathan Villar, who have excelled filling in, but Lindor has a reputation to maintain. And a paycheck to earn.

He’s still setting a high bar for the Mets, saying Monday that they’ll win 90 to 100 games, and "probably more." As for how much better their record would be with Lindor performing like the MVP candidate they signed, he didn’t have an answer.

"I don’t know," he said. "Find some people that can put an algorithm together and let me know. All I know is I’m doing my best. I’m working as hard as I can. It will come."

The Mets need it from Lindor ASAP. As in yesterday.

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