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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Jeff McNeil making a (nick)name for himself with Mets

Mets' Jeff McNeil, left, slides home to score

Mets' Jeff McNeil, left, slides home to score a run against Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, right, during the ninth inning of a baseball game on March 30, 2019, in Washington.  Credit: AP/Nick Wass


After four hits, a triple, a double, two runs scored and two RBIs, Jeff McNeil emerged from a back room of the clubhouse, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, breathing heavily in the wake of the Mets’ 11-8 victory over the Nationals.

“Just crushed it,” McNeil said, first to nobody in particular.

As he settled in to his locker, McNeil turned to his neighbor, Juan Lagares. “Crushed it,” he repeated.

The Mets’ quasi-super-utility guy wasn’t referring to his Saturday afternoon at the plate, which began with McNeil torching Stephen Strasburg for an RBI triple in the first inning. No, McNeil was talking about his rigorous postgame regimen — legs, some upper body — that kept pushing him to exhaustion while many of his teammates already were headed for the door.

“Just trying to do my workouts after the game now,” McNeil said, attempting to catch his breath. “Try to save all my energy for the game.”

When you’re nearly sent to Seattle in the Robinson Cano deal, as McNeil was in November, and the new general manager signs a second third baseman to stick in front of you, as Brodie Van Wagenen did in acquiring Jed Lowrie, you spend those extra hours in the gym. Or the batting cage.

Or you grab an outfielder’s glove, as McNeil did in spring training, and get up to speed in leftfield, even though the Mets’ two veteran third basemen — Lowrie and Todd Frazier — would be on the injured list for an indefinite period.

Lowrie, signed to a two-year, $20 million contract, is with the Mets in D.C. but is limited to taking batting practice in the clubhouse cage as he rehabs a sprained left knee. And Frazier? He’s creeping closer to a return from a strained oblique, but he went 0-for-4 Saturday in an extended-spring game.

The Mets escalated McNeil’s third-base workload in spring training when they realized the other two wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day, but it was his adaptability to leftfield that enabled them to do what they did to win Saturday’s game and secure a series victory over the Nats. Switching McNeil to left allowed Mickey Callaway to start J.D. Davis, who delivered the tiebreaking two-run single in the eighth inning.

Regardless of what happens with either Lowrie or Frazier, McNeil is making himself an indispensable part of the Mets’ lineup. He went 4-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs Saturday. He laid the groundwork for it last season by hitting .329 in 63 games. His .381 on-base percentage (minimum 200 at-bats) was the third-highest by a Mets rookie in franchise history, trailing only Wally Backman (.387) and Dave Magadan (.386).

As impressive as that was, McNeil had to do it again this year . . . if he was given the opportunity. Cano took his job the minute he arrived, and Lowrie was supposed to be the starter at third.

It’s not that the Mets didn’t believe in McNeil. They just dared him to repeat it, although he says there wasn’t any additional pressure.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Just try to stick to my approach, take one at-bat at a time.”

Small bites, maybe, like his nickname, “Squirrel,” a moniker McNeil really didn’t warm up to until Saturday’s four-hit statement. The Mets had been calling him that since last year, but McNeil did his best to keep the nickname in the clubhouse, mostly by telling everyone he didn’t like it. He revealed Saturday that one of his new gloves has “Flying Squirrel” stitched along the thumb, and McNeil didn’t protest quite as much when it was brought up after the win.

It was Noah Syndergaard who repeatedly referred to McNeil as “Squirrel” during his own postgame interview. When told that McNeil is embracing it now, Syndergaard replied, “As he should. I would. It’s a great nickname to have.”

Sure, that’s easy to say for someone called Thor. One being a hammer-toting superhero and the other an acorn-munching rodent. But McNeil certainly comes off as the squirrelly type in the most flattering sense: a scrappy, scraggly-haired resourceful hitter who clings to an at-bat like his namesake to a tree branch. You can’t shake him off.

“He’s more comfortable, obviously, after getting some success at the major-league level,” Callaway said. “He’s out there relaxed. He’s got confidence in his defense and he puts together a good at-bat. He’s going to ambush you if you’re not careful, so you just can’t lay the first pitch in there. He makes it tough on the opposing pitcher, no matter who they are.”

McNeil chewed up Strasburg for a pair of hits Saturday, the first a 400-foot triple that set the tone for the Mets’ machine-like production. Hours later, long after the final out, he was working just as hard. Still trying to catch his breath.

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