NEW YORK -- There is a reason why the bases-loaded drag bunt is one of baseball’s rarest plays. It is difficult to execute, requiring a precisely placed ball. An inch in the wrong direction and a forceout becomes inevitable.
For a bases-loaded bunt to be successful, it must look something like the one Jeff McNeil laid down Friday in the third inning of the Mets’ 10-3 win over the Yankees. With the blowout still a one-run game at that point, McNeil surprised the defense with a high-hopping drag bunt to the right side of the infield. It was hit with too much velocity for the pitcher to field it, but too little for either the second or first baseman to charge it successfully. By the time the ball settled into Anthony Rizzo’s glove, Michael Conforto had already scored without leaving his feet.
In terms of win probability, the bunt was a footnote. It didn’t offer the same type of oomph as Javier Báez’s two RBI hits, James McCann’s run-scoring double or Francisco Lindor’s opposite-field homer. But in front of the third-largest crowd of the season at Citi Field, it represented the type of creativity the Mets have often lacked -- and that they’ll need to continue engineering if they want to make an 11th-hour run up the National League standings.
“He kept the rally going,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said of McNeil. “It’s not a play that you usually count on, but if you’re feeling it and you have a good read on the defense and you’ve got the right pitcher there and you know that you can do it, then by all means. It worked out this time.”
The bases-loaded bunt hit was just the second in Mets history, and the first by a position player; Bill Pulsipher had the other on Sept. 6, 1995. It was also just the third bunt single with the bases loaded and no outs in the last 30 years of Major League Baseball, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Trailing by a run heading into the third, the Mets rallied on a hit and three consecutive Jordan Montgomery walks -- the third of them forcing home the game-tying run. The go-ahead run subsequently scored on an error, bringing McNeil to the plate with the bases loaded.
Following McNeil's run-scoring bunt, the Mets scored twice more that inning before tacking on late to turn the game into a laugher. Their own starter, Tylor Megill, struck out a career-high 10 batters en route to seven innings of two-run ball.
“The energy definitely felt different,” Megill said.
Credit McNeil for at least some of that. Statistically one of the Mets’ most disappointing players this summer, McNeil entered the night hitting just .243 with a .313 on-base percentage -- nothing close to what he contributed during his first three big league seasons, in which he annually batted well over .300. Injuries have affected McNeil, resulting in a loss of playing time. And like many Mets hitters, he’s struggled to fight his way out of it, batting just .172 in September entering Friday.
So why not create something?
When McNeil approached the plate with the bases loaded, the opposing third baseman was near the lip of the grass, but the right side of the infield was playing back. It was enough for McNeil to consider a bunt, much like he did more frequently in the Minors.
“It took me back to when Jeff had less weight on him, couldn’t hit the ball out of the park in A-ball,” said Rojas, who was also McNeil’s manager at that time. “He would bunt with two strikes, he would bunt in situations like that. So, unexpected. That wasn’t a play set or anything. It was just him. … You don’t see that in the game.”
For a Mets offense that has ranked near the bottom of the Majors in runs per game all season, it was a matter, as Báez said it, of “being simple” and working to “move the stick to the next guy.” And while McNeil’s bunt helped lead the Mets to nothing more than a singular victory, it was an example of the exact type of spark they need.
“Every win counts here,” Lindor said. “Every win is huge when it’s September. We’ve got to go out there day in and day out and give it our best. Whatever it takes to play in that cold weather in October. Yeah, every win matters for sure.”