WASHINGTON -- Earlier in his eighth-inning at-bat on Saturday, J.D. Davis swung through a 97-mph fastball at the letters. One of the Mets’ offseason trade acquisitions, Davis is built for power. But when Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal backed up two more fastballs with an 87-mph slider, Davis tapped into the muscle memory the Mets instilled in him all spring: He waited a tick, then a tick longer, then dropped his shoulder and slapped his barrel at the ball.
It splashed into right-center field, plating the go-ahead runs in a game the Mets held on to win, 11-8.
All told, the Mets recorded seven run-scoring hits in the game; none were homers, and six of the seven went to center field or the opposite field.
“We talked a lot about situational hitting this spring, just using the whole field situationally,” hitting coach Chili Davis said. “And they’re doing it.”
For years, Davis -- a veteran hitting coach previously with the A’s, Red Sox and Cubs -- has preached a contact approach, which stands in contrast to the Mets’ swing-for-the-fences mantra during Sandy Alderson’s eight-year tenure as general manager. That front office valued home runs, which often came at a cost: over those eight seasons, the Mets ranked 29th in the Majors in batting average.
This spring, with Davis in the cage, the Mets placed a renewed prominence on situational hitting. They stressed the importance of going to the opposite field. They de-emphasized home runs. They even encouraged bunts to beat sizable defensive shifts, hoping opponents will dramatically reduce the amount they shift against the Mets.
So when Davis came to the plate in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, his intention was well-practiced. Asked afterward if he was trying to go to the opposite field, Davis replied: “Of course.”
“I just widened out, shortened up my stride a little bit, choked up a little bit on the bat,” Davis said. “He ended up making a mistake. In my head, I told myself to try to stay inside the ball as much as I can.”
In that approach, Davis was far from alone. Take Pete Alonso as Exhibit B. In the first inning, the right-handed rookie punched a soft single into right field with an overshift against him. In the second, he blasted a double over center fielder Victor Robles’ head. In the eighth, with Davis still on base, Alonso crushed a double that hit the right-center-field scoreboard on the fly. He finished 3-for-4 with a walk, a run scored and two RBIs.
“One of my strengths is I can hit the ball wherever it’s pitched,” Alonso said.
It helps that New York’s personnel is built for this sort of thing. Alonso likes to name former White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, whose 40-homer power did not prevent him from eclipsing a .300 batting average four times in his career, as one of his idols. Robinson Canó has made a career out of an all-fields approach. Michael Conforto boasts one of the best opposite-field home-run rates in baseball the past four seasons. Pull-happy hitters such as Jay Bruce, Wilmer Flores and Jose Bautista are gone.
Then there is Jeff McNeil, who directed 61 percent of his hits to left or center field last season, according to Statcast data. Against Nationals pitching on Saturday, McNeil hit an RBI triple to center, two singles to center and a run-scoring double that -- hey, there’s an exception to every rule -- he ripped down the right-field line. All told, McNeil finished 4-for-5.
“When they shift us, we try to take what they give us,” McNeil said. “If they’re shifting, we try to shoot the ball the other way.”
“It makes it very difficult for the other team, and it’s going to help our hitters in the long run,” manager Mickey Callaway added. “I’m really proud of what they’re doing.”