Stewart shows Mets his value in rout of Braves

April 11th, 2024

ATLANTA -- Earlier this week, when clubbed a go-ahead homer to give the Mets their first victory of what became a demonstrative series win over the Braves, Stewart said he “didn’t really react, just because I’ve been waiting all season for that.”

Once a player breaks through with one big hit, Stewart knows, the rest tends to fall into place a bit more smoothly. So it was Thursday afternoon at Truist Park, where Stewart again provided the most significant offensive moment in a 16-4 thumping of the Braves. His two-run homer in the third inning solidified an early New York lead, allowing the club to break down the underbelly of Atlanta’s bullpen late in a blowout win.

“It’s a little bit of that weight off your shoulders,” Stewart said.

In Stewart’s first at-bat, Braves starter Allan Winans surprised him with his sequencing, following a first-pitch changeup with a high fastball that Stewart popped into shallow left field. An inning later, however, when Winans threw two consecutive changeups, Stewart was ready for the second one, depositing it into the Chop House area beyond the right-field fence.

Asked if he was sitting on a particular pitch in that at-bat, Stewart smiled and replied wryly: “Yes.”

“He threw the pitch that I was expecting,” Stewart added, “and I put a good swing on it.”

If only baseball were always that easy. A Minor League signing two offseasons ago, Stewart made it back to the Majors last July and caught fire in August, once the Mets’ Trade Deadline selloff created consistent playing time for him. But he slumped in September, reported to Spring Training without a guaranteed job, then scuffled some more in Port St. Lucie. Even after the Mets trimmed their roster down to 13 position players, team officials declined to tell Stewart he had made the team. Their silence spoke volumes; they were keeping open the possibility of supplanting him with someone from outside the organization.

Ultimately, Stewart did make the club, but he started the regular season 0-for-12. In the batting cage, he searched for answers, mimicking a drill that Brandon Nimmo began using last season: taking a long, flexible rod with a rubber ball attached to the end of it, Stewart repeatedly swung it on a flat line in hopes of leveling out his bat path.

“It’s teaching you how to get on plane and stay on plane,” Nimmo said, “without you ever really having to think about it.”

During a dugout conversation Thursday morning with bench coach John Gibbons, Stewart said he felt like he had unlocked something of consequence. To prove it, he hit his second homer in three games to propel the Mets’ best offensive output of the season -- a catharsis that included 16 hits, three runs scored from Jeff McNeil and even a late Tyrone Taylor grand slam against Braves position player Luis Guillorme.

Behind that sort of output and a solid Jose Quintana start, the Mets took two of three in Atlanta.

“They had our number last year, and a lot of guys in this clubhouse remember that,” Stewart said. “Obviously, we play them a lot more, but this is a good start.”

For Stewart personally, a good start is just as crucial. By this time next week, J.D. Martinez could be ready or near-ready to join the Mets. As a full-time DH, Martinez figures to siphon a significant chunk of playing time away from Stewart, who is more valuable to New York at the plate than in the field. At that time, team officials will need to decide if they’re better served having Stewart on the roster as a left-handed complement to Martinez or keeping Zack Short around as a late-game defensive sub.

Of note, Stewart has an accessible Minor League option, while Short does not. The Mets could choose to keep Short for precisely that motive -- unless, of course, Stewart gives them reason not to.

This week in Atlanta, Stewart began to do that, demonstrating his value as a notable part of what the Mets can do offensively.

“It was good to see him come through that first night with a homer,” manager Carlos Mendoza said. “Today, again. So he’s going to give us quality at-bats.”