WASHINGTON -- The Mets were comfortable giving Francisco Lindor $341 million this winter not simply because he is a solid hitter and a Gold Glove Award-winning fielder -- the type of player he has recently proven he can be in emerging from an early-season slump.
No. The Mets gave Lindor $341 million because he can offer premium power from a premium defensive position, as evidenced by the 34 homers per year he averaged from 2017-19 with Cleveland. Until Saturday, Lindor hadn’t shown the Mets much of that pop. But he gave them a significant taste of it in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Nationals Park, homering twice and driving in all five of the Mets’ runs in a 5-1 win over the Nats.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Lindor, who had been in a 1-for-17 funk leading into Saturday. “I don’t know why today. I don’t ask questions.”
After Jonathan Villar singled to lead off the game, Lindor cracked his first homer to the opposite field, staring it down as it cleared the fence just to the left of straightaway center. Four innings later, Lindor followed up pitcher David Peterson’s first career hit with a mammoth 110.9 mph, 414-foot homer to the second deck in right, prompting Nationals starter Joe Ross to bemoan: “I just got beat by one guy.”
Lindor also added an RBI single in the third inning to finish 3-for-4. The two homers gave him eight for the season, putting him on pace for 21 over 162 games -- still relatively modest, perhaps, but steadily rising.
“Everyone knew it was coming,” Peterson said. “He’s a special player, and there’s a reason why we went out and got him and signed him to keep him here for a long time. You’re starting to see what we’ve seen in the past from him. All credit to him, because no matter what he’s gone through offensively this year, he’s come to the ballpark, showed up, he’s been a great guy in the clubhouse, and he works [hard]. So, everyone knew it was coming.”
That didn’t make Lindor’s breakout game any less cathartic. In retrospect, Lindor began emerging from his early-season freeze on May 6, when he awoke with a .157/.276/.202 slash line and one home run in 24 games. That night, Lindor reached base three times, before homering a day later in the Mets’ infamous “rat or raccoon?” game.
But even as he began to thaw, Lindor struggled to generate consistent power. Over a 37-game stretch beginning on May 6, Lindor batted .243/.329/.419 with five homers -- better numbers, to be sure, but still not the ones the Mets were expecting.
Then came Saturday, the type of afternoon that can change the narrative. Not only did Lindor hit two homers, but he placed them in two distinct parts of the ballpark. Lindor said that his first long ball, to left-center, was more important because it proved that his early-season work -- trying to drive balls to the gaps more than over the fence -- was paying dividends. In April, Lindor erred on the side of trying to pull nearly everything, which didn’t end well for him.
The Mets have preached for him to be less rigid and, in manager Luis Rojas’ words, “trust his power.” In doing so, they know, Lindor can more regularly drive outside pitches to the gaps, which will in turn tempt opponents to come inside more often.
When they do, Lindor is fully capable of turning on pitches like he did in the fifth, which revealed the full extent of his power.
“He doesn’t normally need to pull the ball,” Rojas said. “Driving the ball to the deepest part of the park, I think that was a really good sign.”
Rojas understands that even if Lindor doesn’t see himself as a power hitter, his star shortstop has those capabilities. Perhaps Lindor even underestimates himself. Following Saturday’s game, he couldn’t remember driving in five runs in a game before (he’s done so three times now), and he could only recall a handful of multi-homer games (he’s had a dozen).
“Power hitting to me is somebody that can hit consistently 40, 45-plus every single year,” Lindor said. “I can’t really do that. I would love to do it. I probably can hit 40 one year, but not consistently. I think a hitter that goes 25-35 a year, every year, is a gap-to-gap hitter. … so I consider myself a gap-to-gap hitter.”
Whatever he wants to call it, the Mets will take it if this is the consistent result. Following Saturday’s Game 1 win, Lindor prepared to flip to the right side of the plate against Nationals left-hander Jon Lester, who presented a new sort of challenge for the switch-hitting shortstop.
“We’ll see if that side works today,” Lindor quipped before heading back into the clubhouse to prepare.