Alonso compares McNeil to Ted Williams

'Flying Squirrel' had four hits and is now batting .370 on the season

May 1st, 2019

NEW YORK -- If held any lingering hope of letting his “Flying Squirrel” nickname fade into obscurity, he abandoned it before a live national audience on Tuesday afternoon. In an interview with MLB Network, McNeil grinned, laughed and admitted to the moniker, which he has had -- but not always embraced -- since college. At the time, a teammate thought he looked like a flying squirrel, diving all over the field. The nickname followed him to pro ball and eventually to the Majors, where McNeil’s play has served only to highlight it in bold.

His fourth and final hit on Tuesday may have led directly to ’s walk-off sacrifice fly in the 10th inning of the Mets’ 4-3 win over the Reds at Citi Field. But it was McNeil’s second hit, a bunt to the right side of the infield with two outs and a man on third base, that revealed his inner squirrel.

Noticing Cincinnati’s first and second basemen playing on the outfield grass, McNeil attempted a drag bunt but pushed it foul. When he saw Reds infielder Joey Votto and Jose Peraza set up in nearly identical positions for the next pitch, McNeil tried it again. Votto charged in to field the slow roller, leaving first base exposed. Pitcher Luis Castillo ran over to cover, and McNeil dove to the bag, arms extended, to avoid the tag. Ebullient, he popped up to his knees, removed his helmet and screamed into the Mets’ dugout.

Turns out Squirrel is an excitable sort. That hit plated the Mets’ first run in a teetering game that saw Castillo and Jason Vargas both pitch well. Eugenio Suarez and Todd Frazier hit clutch homers and both teams scored in the ninth inning or later. By the end of it, McNeil had collected four hits for the fifth time in his career, boosting his average to .370 -- second in the National League behind Cody Bellinger.

“He looks like Ted Williams out there,” Alonso said.

“I’ll definitely take that compliment,” responded McNeil, who a year ago was largely unknown in New York.

Even entering 2019, there was some doubt as to how often McNeil would appear in the lineup. The Mets acquired Robinson Cano over the winter to play second base, and Jed Lowrie to man third. The only remaining spot for McNeil was left field, until preseason injuries to both Lowrie and Frazier freed up the depth chart.

He’s done well enough with his chance that when asked recently about Lowrie returning, manager Mickey Callaway smiled, called McNeil “really good” and assured that he’ll continue to play. No lineup is too crowded for a player who has reached base safely in 71 of his 79 career starts, with 33 multi-hit games and 13 of three or more.

Tuesday, Callaway called McNeil’s game “Dirtbag Baseball,” referring to the nickname of his alma mater, Long Beach State. Most prefer the term squirrelly. Earlier this season, hitting coach Chili Davis affectionately called McNeil a rat. His justification? “You can’t sneak cheese by a rat.”

Speaking to Davis before Tuesday’s game, McNeil said he wanted to lay down a drag bunt if Cincinnati’s infielders continued playing him deep, which explains why he was determined enough to try twice. McNeil also singled up the middle in the first inning and doubled in the eighth, scoring a key insurance run on Michael Conforto’s single.

The Mets cashed in their policy half an inning later, when Jeurys Familia -- attempting to log a six-out save with regular closer Edwin Diaz unavailable -- served up a pair of runs. The Mets and Reds then traded zeros until the bottom of the 10th, when J.D. Davis capped a 10-pitch, leadoff at-bat with a double.

Up came McNeil, needing only a ground ball to the right side to give the Mets a hammerlock on the game. He ripped a line-drive single instead, putting runners on the corners and turning things over to Alonso, who hit a no-doubt sacrifice fly to end it.

In the postgame celebration, Alonso’s teammates dumped water, bubblegum and sunflower seeds over his head. As they all exchanged high fives, McNeil found Alonso and jokingly shouted that he deserved half the credit.

“I let Pete Alonso hit the walk-off,” McNeil said afterward, only possibly kidding. “I could have done it right there. But I let him do it.”