Ask Buck Showalter a question lately about Jeff McNeil — any topic — and the Mets’ manager starts off his response the same way.
Mostly by disregarding the subject matter of your inquiry and then launching into what has become a daily All-Star campaign for McNeil.
“If he’s not on the All-Star team . . . ,” Showalter said Sunday, again.
I don’t disagree with him. Chances are, McNeil will be making that trip to Dodger Stadium later this month. But that wasn’t my question. I was more interested in how much McNeil — who blazes like a Roman candle after a lousy AB — needed that RBI double in the fourth inning of the Mets’ 4-1 victory over the Rangers on Sunday at Citi Field.
“His teammates needed it, too,” Showalter said, chuckling a bit. “We like to see Mac happy.”
The uber-intense McNeil doesn’t tend to smile very often, but one of the few chances you have of seeing a grin from him is after a hit. He was 1-for-12 since returning Thursday from his week-long “leg-maintenance” sabbatical due to right hamstring tightness (more on that later).
And this isn’t just about McNeil.
During his absence, the Mets went from being one of the best situational-hitting teams in the majors to the worst over that span. Heading into Sunday, they were batting .137 with runners in scoring position since June 21.
Coincidence? Hardly. McNeil is the Mets’ top RISP performer, hitting .387 (24-for-62) in those spots, which ranks him fifth (the Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt leads MLB at .411). If these Mets are going to be the resourceful offensive machine that once held a sizable cushion in the NL East — and if they intend to stay there — McNeil has to be the middle-of-the-lineup engine.
“Just get hits,” he said of his RISP mindset. “That’s all it is. I try to take the same approach up there and, you know, hits are falling this year. Don’t try to do [too] much. Nothing really changes.”
The trick is making sure that McNeil keeps getting those opportunities by remaining in the lineup. He has a history of leg problems, and the Mets are trying to head off any issues before they snowball into more serious, debilitating injuries.
They raised eyebrows earlier this season by giving McNeil a leg-specific breather and then did it again for an extended period after removing him from a game on June 20 with the diagnosis of right hamstring tightness.
The timing is the key, because the difference between tightness and a strain can be anywhere from three to eight weeks, depending on the severity. With the Mets barely holding off Atlanta at the moment — the margin went to 3 1⁄2 games Sunday — they really can’t afford to lose McNeil.
So what’s the plan to avoid that catastrophe? Vigilance, mostly. Showalter used him as the DH on Friday and gave him a pinch-hit at-bat on Saturday. McNeil returned to leftfield for Sunday’s finale against the Rangers — his first time out there since June 19.
Sure enough, Marcus Semien — the second Texas batter of the afternoon — ripped a long fly ball to left that sent McNeil sprinting to the warning track, where he made a running catch that carried him into the wall.
“I’m cautious with it coming off of last week,” said McNeil, who’s hitting .317, which ranks fifth in the NL. “I’m aware of it and just trying to play smart. But today was a good day — it was a good test. I was able to run 100% a few times with no issues, so it feels good to kind of be myself again.”
The Mets went deep twice Sunday, and nine of their 11 runs scored against Texas came via homers. But that’s not who they’ve been this season.
More like what happened in that fourth inning, when Pete Alonso struck out on a wild pitch and reached second base after catcher Jonah Heim’s throw sailed into rightfield. McNeil followed with a tiebreaking RBI double on the next pitch to put the Mets in front for good.
“Glad I could help,” McNeil said, smiling.
He did. Both the Mets and Showalter’s relentless campaign efforts.