LOS ANGELES -- Jeff McNeil tossed his bat over his shoulder as he slammed down his fist, disgusted by umpire Nestor Ceja’s call. With the potential tying runs in scoring position in the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium on Friday, Ceja had rung up McNeil on a pitch that appeared an inch or two off the plate inside. McNeil was livid, screaming multiple times as he stalked back to the dugout.
Yet as much as McNeil’s frustration centered on that single call, it had been bubbling close to the surface for weeks. In the Mets’ 3-2 loss to the Dodgers, McNeil finished 0-for-4 to fall deeper into a 3-for-37 slump. He is hardly the only struggling hitter on a team that has now lost 16 of its last 22 games. But McNeil has always been perhaps the Mets’ most emotional player, a representation of the club’s collective mood.
On this night, that mood was anger and disgust.
“Guys are going to be mad. Guys are going to be upset,” outfielder Michael Conforto said. “We’re honest with ourselves. We’re not living in a fantasyland where we think everything’s great, like the standings aren’t there. We’re very aware of that. But we’re going to stay confident. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re not going to let a loss linger into the next day.”
Added Conforto: “We’re not just going to pack up our stuff and go home.”
Despite a strong performance from Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler, the Mets remained within striking distance all evening thanks to Carlos Carrasco’s five innings of three-run ball in his deepest start of the season and Pete Alonso’s home run in the fourth. That gave the Mets’ eighth-inning rally teeth, as they put two men in scoring position with only one out in a two-run game. Only then did McNeil’s strikeout stunt their momentum, forcing the Mets to settle for a lone run on an Alonso infield single that actually hit him -- it should have been ruled a foul ball, but the Dodgers did not challenge -- before rolling into fair territory.
Two batters later, J.D. Davis struck out looking to strand the bases loaded.
“It’s another tough loss,” manager Luis Rojas said. “All losses are tough. They took it as a tough loss, but they went in and the recovery has started already.”
The Mets know that their current slump, which has seen them lose 10 games in the standings in 20 days, isn’t on McNeil any more than it is on Dominic Smith, who is in a 3-for-33 funk and playing through right wrist soreness; or Conforto, who was scuffling mightily until about two weeks ago; or Francisco Lindor, who still hasn’t returned from a right oblique strain; or Davis, who has never truly been able to claim the full-time third-base job for his own; or any other scuffling Met.
But on Friday, McNeil centered himself in the family photo with his emotional outburst. Collectively during that eighth-inning rally, the Mets showed more on-field fire than they have in weeks -- Conforto flipping his bat following a key 10-pitch walk, McNeil offering Ceja a rather vocal opinion of his strike zone and so on and so forth.
“After the game, he was really hard on himself,” Rojas said of McNeil, who declined an interview request. “Some of us went to him and talked to him and told him it was a good at-bat. It’s not recorded as a good at-bat right now. It’s recorded as a strikeout. But it was a good take.”
Still, it’s hard to say the Mets are going down swinging when they literally aren’t. For weeks now, Rojas has openly criticized his hitters’ approach, noting that they have been unprepared to hit fastballs. Davis offered the latest example in the eighth, swinging through two Alex Vesia heaters near the top of the zone before staring at strike three over the heart of the plate.
Considering that theme, it can be difficult to see when or how this downward spiral might end, despite the Mets’ protestations that it will.
Asked why he believes things will indeed turn for the better, Conforto did not hesitate.
“I have faith in my guys,” he said. “I’ve seen them go out there and hit. I’ve seen them go out there and have great games in this market, in this tough division, against good opponents like the Dodgers, against aces like Walker Buehler. I’ve seen it before. So regardless of what’s happened over the past 120 games, like I said, we’re not going to pack up and go home. We’re going to continue to fight.”