The play was lost in a haze of bad Noah Syndergaard pitches and wonder about the righty’s relationship with catcher Wilson Ramos.
But the fourth inning Friday night began with Matt Beatty grounding a ball closer to short than third. Jeff McNeil ranged several steps to his left and made a quick-handed, do-or-die scoop before throwing out Beatty. Syndergaard, though, allowed the next four batters to reach and score, and the Dodgers were off to a 9-2 romp.
That obscured McNeil’s play while delivering a real-time gut punch as the Mets fell three games back of the second wild card.
However, when Mets officials reflect on this season — with or without the playoffs — plays like McNeil made in this series opener will be part of the positive pile. That was actually McNeil’s second strong play in this game at third, the position he has played the least. He is one of six players to start at least 10 games at four different positions — 12 at third. That he has performed adequately or better at all of them is a huge surprise and asset.
In fact, the Mets have received some optimistic defensive/versatility results this year to project forward. At this time last year there was wonder — including within the Mets’ walls — that Pete Alonso was a DH who would ultimately have to be traded to the AL. No one will confuse him with prime Keith Hernandez. But he is not a butcher.
J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith both showed competence in left field, as a way to sneak their bats into the lineup without devastating the defense. That is not always a given. The Mets brought Todd Hundley to Citi Field on Friday in their continuing effort to reconnect with their alumni and to have him meet Alonso, who broke the team homer record Hundley had previously shared with Carlos Beltran.
In 1998, after obtaining Mike Piazza, the Mets force-fed Hundley in left field for 34 games and he played like a Little League right fielder. The experiment ended quickly.
Of all of these, McNeil’s versatility is the greatest benefit. Like Alonso, he came from the minor league system with a reputation as a poor defender, while offering strong bat-to-ball skills. This sounded like Daniel Murphy 2.0, which promised the need to hide McNeil on defense to get his bat into the lineup.
McNeil, though, has incorporated power much earlier than Murphy. And his defense — aided by his attentiveness — has been fine no matter where Mickey Callaway puts him.
Gary Disarcina, the Mets’ third base and infield coach, gained his first inkling of McNeil’s willingness during spring 2018. The Mets needed a late-game first baseman, Disarcina recommended the scrappy, scrawny kid who was lent out from the minor league camp a few times, and when he approached McNeil the attitude was “anywhere, any time.” That approach has persisted.
“Jeff, in my mind, is our best overall player,” Disarcina said. “When it comes to defense he doesn’t look pretty, but he makes the plays. And he makes them because he is fearless. And he makes them because he pays attention. And he makes them because he is not afraid to be uncomfortable and accept the challenge. I think he knows his calling card is diversity.”
His main attribute is his bat. Since his July 24, 2018, promotion, McNeil’s .324 average trails just Christian Yelich (,339) and Anthony Rendon (.332) in the majors. But the ability to find a way to get that bat into the lineup daily is a blessing for a manager.
Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts — who gets to deploy multi-positional pieces such as Cody Bellinger, Enrique Hernandez, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor — said, “When you have a player capable and — just as vital — willing to be flexible around the diamond, it is invaluable. It helps you get matchups, give guys days off, double-switch easier. It really helps you win that day’s game.”
McNeil has a shot to be a newer version of Ben Zobrist, who the Mets tried to sign to a four-year deal four years ago. With injury red flags Yoenis Cespedes in left, Jed Lowrie at third and Robinson Cano at second, and Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo potentially having to share center, McNeil’s ability to play third, second and the outfield corners only increases his roster value in 2020 — and beyond.
“He’s a winning baseball player,” said Roberts, who managed McNeil at the All-Star Game. “Both sides of the ball, he doesn’t take a play off. When you are trying to win a game, everything a guy like that brings makes it easier.”
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