Jeff McNeil feels pressure of races for playoffs and batting title, but he continues to produce for Mets
Jeff McNeil doesn’t do short memory. He doesn’t shrug things off, or quickly turn the page, or rely on whatever feel-good coping method others choose to employ.
So when McNeil has a rough game, as he did Tuesday night with an 0-for-4 against the Cubs’ Yu Darvish, he holds on even tighter, internalizing that fury. Which is why McNeil later sat at his locker, staring blankly at his hanging clothes.
McNeil didn’t talk to anyone. Just occasionally glanced at his phone, or buried his face in his hands. Of particular annoyance to him was striking out on four pitches in the eighth inning, the last a weak swing at a knuckle curve.
That futility kept playing over and over in McNeil’s brain as he sat there. Then continued later at home. Before Wednesday’s game, with McNeil back in his same clubhouse chair, I asked him if he had let go yet.
“It’s still in my head right now,” McNeil said.
The Mets didn’t do such a great job shedding their demons later Wednesday night as Noah Syndergaard was shelled for a career-worst 10 runs in only three innings, dumping his team in a 10-1 hole. But McNeil, back atop the order, helped kick-start an improbable comeback attempt with a two-run homer in the Mets’ five-run fifth inning. It was McNeil’s 16th home run this season, and 11th from the leadoff spot, where he was hitting .329 with a .919 OPS.
After the Mets had scored a total of nine runs during their four-game losing streak, hitting .204 (30-for-147) in the process and just .133 (4-for-30) with RISP, Mickey Callaway hoped that returning McNeil atop the order would ignite their moribund offense. But it had a delayed effect, and Syndergaard’s implosion undercut those efforts at a time when the Mets can least afford any slip-ups.
Right now, with the Mets pushing hard for a playoff berth, along with McNeil’s own pursuit of the NL batting title, the heat on him is intensifying.
McNeil burns hot anyway. But this is a new experience for him, like many of these Mets, and there is a line to walk between using that competitive fire as fuel — or being consumed by those flames altogether. The super-intense McNeil is their point man, and he’s acutely aware of the responsibility.
“It’s different than last year,” McNeil said. “Last year when I came up, we weren’t really playing for anything. This year, obviously we’re playing for a lot, so every game is a little bit more pressure. It’s not like I’m putting more pressure on myself. It’s just that every game now is bigger. You think about it.”
At least McNeil was being honest. This his first full season in the majors, after playing 63 games a year ago, and there’s plenty on his plate. The Mets are scoreboard-watching on a nightly basis while McNeil also is tracking the rest of the NL’s top hitters.
McNeil slipped out of the lead Tuesday when hitless performance docked him three whole points to .330, which dropped him into a second-place tie with the reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich. The Pirates’ Brian Reynolds had moved into first place at .332.
“Obviously I’m trying to hit as well as I can,” McNeil said. “I want to win a batting title one day and I want to help this team win. So me hitting well and me getting on base, is going to do that.”
As McNeil is discovering, that can become more difficult the deeper he gets into the season. After hitting .349 in the first half to earn a trip to the All-Star Game, McNeil has dipped to .282 since the break, with a 10-day stint on the injured list to heal from a mild hamstring strain. That was a relatively short stay for a hamstring issue, but McNeil insists there’s been no lingering effects, and he’s moved OK defensively since his return last Saturday.
Physically, he says he’s good. It’s just a matter of McNeil channeling the frustration into something more productive. When he showed up early Wednesday, McNeil immediately went to work “trying to feel things that I wasn’t feeling [Tuesday] night.” Consider that a cooling-down period before McNeil’s temperature spiked again for Cubs’ starter Kyle Hendricks.
“I think that keeps him motivated,” Callaway said before Wednesday’s game. “Everybody has their own way of dealing with success and failure, and understanding what makes them click. Wade Boggs was very similar, Pete Rose was every similar. He wears it on his sleeve and he competes harder than anybody. It’s something that makes him click.”
And the Mets desperately need McNeil clicking, almost as much as he does.