McNeil's 1st batting title 'a dream come true'

Second baseman leads MLB with .326 average after Mets win 101st game

October 6th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Because rain delayed the Mets’ regular-season finale against the Nationals by nearly two hours on Wednesday, Jeff McNeil found himself with an unexpected block of free time. Naturally, he turned on the Dodgers' game to watch Freddie Freeman, the only player still capable of catching him in the Major League batting race.

McNeil had gone to bed the previous night with a four-point lead, meaning he would win the batting title unless Freeman went 4-for-4 or better. That seemed a tall task until Freeman ripped a double into right-center field in his first at-bat. Some time later, Freeman homered in his second plate appearance. By Freeman’s third at-bat, many of McNeil’s teammates had clustered around him in the clubhouse, watching as the Dodgers' slugger flied out to the warning track.

With that, McNeil could exhale, knowing his .326 average was going to be good enough. Unwilling to risk the batting title he so coveted, McNeil sat out the first seven innings of what was essentially a meaningless game, which the Mets won, 9-2. In the fourth, after the Los Angeles score went final, McNeil emerged from the dugout to receive a standing ovation from the fans at Citi Field.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” McNeil said. “This was one of my goals in baseball was to win a batting title. It was a bunch of hard work and trying to get back to the player I knew I could be.”

In saying those words, McNeil referenced the 2021 season, which saw him hit a career-worst .251 as the Mets cycled through multiple hitting coaches and philosophies. Some of McNeil’s troubles were due to poor batted-ball luck, but other issues were not. When McNeil examined video of himself after the season, he realized how inconsistent his swing had become.

Early this year, McNeil worked to make that swing more repeatable, which allowed him to hit above .300 for much of the first half. On Aug. 12, McNeil suffered a cut on his right thumb that required two stitches, prompting him to split his hands when gripping the bat to avoid debilitating pain. For whatever reason, the new grip sparked him; from Aug. 13 through the end of the season, McNeil -- featuring the split grip until his finger healed, then going back to his normal, closed grip -- batted .366.

Even so, McNeil seemed an unlikely batting champion until the final days of the season, when he strung together eight multi-hit games over a nine-game stretch. Some of that 19-for-38 run overlapped with a late slump from Freeman, who went 0-for-12 from Sunday through Tuesday to cede the top spot to McNeil.

“Jeff, that’s a heck of an accomplishment,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “He earned it all the way through thick and thin.”

The batting title is, in many ways, a crowning achievement for McNeil, a former 12th-round Draft pick who suffered multiple injuries as a prospect and struggled to prove he was deserving of a callup. In the postgame clubhouse Wednesday, teammate Pete Alonso recalled a long-ago slight from a media member who had brushed off McNeil’s Triple-A success in Las Vegas, explaining it as a 26-year-old taking advantage of an extreme hitter’s ballpark. McNeil cataloged that and other criticisms and used them as fuel.

“I’m hard on myself,” he said. “I think everyone knows that. But I expect to be a .300 hitter every single year. So this is where I want to be. This is the player I want to be for the rest of my career.”

At age 30, McNeil is now a two-time All-Star and a batting champion, having secured the second batting title in franchise history and the first since José Reyes in 2011. He is the owner of the sixth-highest qualified average in 61 years of Mets baseball. He’s a new father, and he is heading to the playoffs for the first time in his career.

Beyond all that, McNeil has a bonus gift coming his way. Early this season, when the prospect of the batting title came up in conversation in the Mets' clubhouse, Francisco Lindor told McNeil that he would buy his teammate a car if he won the batting title. A reporter caught the exchange on tape and made it public.

The episode went largely forgotten until this week, when McNeil began closing in on the title. Once it became official, Lindor acknowledged that he intends to pay the debt in his own unique way.

“I will get him a car,” Lindor said with a smile. “I didn’t specify what kind of car it was.”