NEW YORK -- This time last year, Jeff McNeil had only recently received a promotion to the Mets’ Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, where he wondered what he would have to do to receive a call to the big leagues. At every rung of the Minor League ladder, McNeil had hit. Still, Mets officials seemed to have little interest in promoting McNeil until he kept on raking, and raking, and raking enough to force his way to the Majors.
Fast forward a year, and McNeil is not only a big leaguer, but an All-Star and the Majors' leading hitter. Hours after learning he had made the National League roster on Sunday, McNeil contributed three singles, including a go-ahead two-run knock in the eighth inning, to lead the Mets to an 8-5 win over the Braves at Citi Field. McNeil’s performance gave him sole possession of the Major League batting average lead, at .348, while helping the Mets snap a seven-game losing streak.
“Pretty unbelievable day,” McNeil said. “This is right up there with when I got called up. To have the day end like that is pretty awesome.”
Entering the eighth inning trailing by two runs, the Mets sliced that lead in half when Todd Frazier led off with a homer. They then loaded the bases off relievers Sean Newcomb and A.J. Minter, the latter of whom gave up McNeil’s flare into shallow right field. His All-Star teammate, Pete Alonso, followed with a two-run double to left to provide the final margin.
“Those two guys, I can’t praise them enough,” said Mets starter Noah Syndergaard, who allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings in his return from the injured list. “Kudos to them. They deserve it, for sure.”
That the Mets ended June nine games under .500 was hardly the fault of McNeil or Alonso, who have spent most of the year near the top of the Major League leaderboards in batting average and home runs, respectively. Those two are All-Stars for a reason.
Yet while Alonso was a heralded second-round Draft pick, entering this season as a favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, McNeil was barely on the organization’s radar until late last season. Needing a jolt, the Mets finally called up McNeil in late July, then watched him hit .329 the rest of the way.
Even then, the Mets weren’t fully believers, going as far as to include McNeil in early iterations of the trade that brought Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to Flushing. The Mets ultimately kept McNeil, who has added power in his second big league season without sacrificing his bat-on-ball skills. Covering the entire strike zone with his unique bat path, McNeil makes contact roughly 82 percent of the time when he swings. His 12.5-percent strikeout rate is one of Majors’ lowest among qualified hitters.
“I don’t know how you get him out,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I just sit back the whole series and hope he hits it to somebody.”
Bat-on-ball skills is precisely what the Mets needed in the eighth inning, trailing by a run with the bases loaded and two outs. Knowing McNeil tends to swing at the first pitch of an at-bat, Minter jammed him with a 97-mph fastball inside off the plate. It didn’t matter; McNeil muscled it over second base for a two-run single.
“Sometimes, you just have to touch the ball and good things will happen,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “McNeil touches the ball more than most, and that’s why he’s hitting .340-something and is on the All-Star team.”
McNeil is hitting .348, to be exact, putting him .002 ahead of Cody Bellinger for the Major League lead. It’s been a consistent flow of offense for McNeil, who has 15 multihit games in his last 26 contests, and it doesn’t appear likely to stop anytime soon.
“It’s a dream of mine to win a batting title,” McNeil said. “I’ve still got a long way to go. Hopefully, I keep it up, and we’ll see where we are at the end of the year.”