'I was scared': Lindor battles for big home run

August 2nd, 2022

WASHINGTON -- Just before Francisco Lindor’s fourth at-bat on Monday, Nationals reliever Steve Cishek hit Starling Marte with a pitch, causing Lindor to flash back to the fastball from Cishek that had struck him in the helmet flap April 8 in Washington. It wasn’t an easy moment for the 28-year-old to recall as he stepped up to the plate at Nationals Park. So when Cishek opened his at-bat with another high-and-tight fastball, Lindor struggled to maintain his composure.

“It hasn’t been comfortable since I got hit,” Lindor said. “All I was saying was, like, ‘Please don’t hit me.’ First pitch was inside and made me very, very uncomfortable. I was scared.”

At that point, Lindor calmed his nerves by reminding himself that Cishek did not want to hit him. There was no grudge here, just some shaky command. With that, Lindor fought back his nerves long enough to take the first strike he saw over the left-field fence, hitting a three-run homer that broke open the Mets’ seventh consecutive victory -- a 7-3 triumph over the Nationals.

“That’s crazy,” Mets starter Max Scherzer said. “When you get hit and you see a fastball come up by your face, you really have a life-check for a moment. So for that to happen again, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling being in the box when that happens. Credit to him for putting his head back in there and being able to hit a home run on that pitch. Frankie deserves a lot of credit for that situation. I promise you: go stand in the cage and turn that thing up to 90 miles an hour and put it by your head. You’ll have a new perspective of what we do.”

Lindor’s at-bats haven’t always been this fruitful. After the Mets’ doubleheader split against the Cardinals on May 17, in which he struck out with the tying and go-ahead runs on base to end the nightcap loss, the shortstop was batting .228/.315/.393 in 168 plate appearances. Since that time, he’s hitting .280/.348/.488 in 279 trips to the plate, despite jamming his right middle finger in a hotel door in early June, which resulted in a brief slump.

In July, Lindor hit .320/.393/.540 with five home runs. And now he has started August with a bang.

“The nights go by quicker for sure,” Lindor said. “It’s been good.”

Monday’s game was supposed to be about Scherzer, whose start preceded Jacob deGrom’s much-anticipated season debut by a night. And while that tandem is the Mets’ most likely ticket to extended success in the second half and beyond, they’ll need offensive support along the way.

Enter Lindor, whose statistical output has always been colored by the size of his contract -- $341 million over 10 seasons. His struggles during his first year in New York were well-documented, leading to some consternation when he endured a slow start to this season. But that all appears to be in the past now.

In addition to Lindor’s home run, he ranged deep in the hole in the eighth inning and threw a strike to first to turn a potential Nelson Cruz hit into an inning-ending groundout, demonstrating how he’s derived a significant amount of his value from his defense. Entering the night, Lindor led the Mets in both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ versions of WAR, which is a testament to his two-way talent.

This is the Lindor for whom owner Steve Cohen opened his checkbook a year and a half ago. Barring injury, Lindor is all but certain to set the Mets’ franchise records for home runs as a shortstop (22, by Asdrúbal Cabrera in 2016) and RBIs as a shortstop (81, by José Reyes in 2006). Because he does not stand out in any one statistical category, like Pete Alonso does with his National League-leading 86 RBIs (Alonso homered again on Monday), it can be easy to overlook his overall contributions to the team.

But not inside the walls of the clubhouse. When asked about Lindor after the game, manager Buck Showalter pointed to the fact that “he posts up every night.”

“He’s the same guy every day he walks through the door,” Showalter said. “He loves to play. He loves to compete. And he likes it a lot when the Mets win.”