PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Jeff McNeil, the Met with the most mitts in his clubhouse locker, was encouraged to reorganize his stall during spring training. He was rotating between third base and left field, depending on the day, and batting anywhere from leadoff to eighth, so the third-base coach, Gary DiSarcina, sat down and explained to him that he needed to eliminate some clutter.
McNeil proceeded to pull eight gloves from his locker and pile them on the floor. The last one he retrieved was the most worn.
“That’s the gamer!” he said.
McNeil, 27, is the Mets’ most valuable grinder. His blond goatee whiskers and notable nimbleness earned him the nickname “Squirrel” during his days diving for line drives as an outfielder at Long Beach State, and he has continued to pounce on any opportunity.
In his first major league at-bat last summer, he hit the first pitch he saw for a base hit to center field, and he has kept connecting with his knobless bat ever since, pulling doubles into right field and smacking the ball to left against shifts with a stroke he considers a product of his golfing past. On Saturday night against the Atlanta Braves, he set a new Mets record with 90 hits in his first 76 games in the majors.
“Before he goes to bat, I love telling him, ‘Go get squirrelly for us real quick!’” first baseman Dominic Smith said. “Squirrel hits are the best hits.”
Squirrel fielding, however, can be more of an adventure. One afternoon, early in spring training, he was manning left field when he tried to track a line drive from Miami’s Isaac Galloway. McNeil, wearing shades and still reorienting himself to the position after playing second and third last season, backpedaled before the wind blew the ball over his right shoulder. He turned all the way around in time for the ball to hit the palm of his glove. It then popped out and McNeil crashed into the warning track dirt.
“Did the most athletic thing that I could,” said McNeil, who continues to take extra repetitions in the outfield before games to work on his route running, with quality-control coach Luis Rojas serving as his tutor. “I make that catch almost every time.”
McNeil makes up for any missteps in the field with his extraordinary resourcefulness, which has proved indispensable for the Mets thus far. For all their talk about their depth, the Mets have found themselves relying heavily on McNeil since infielders Todd Frazier and Jed Lowrie went down with injuries in spring training. Neither has played this season.
And McNeil has managed to consistently be in the middle of the action in the early part of this season, whether it was stroking a 400-foot triple, collecting four hits in a game, getting hit by pitches three times in two days, being caught in rundowns twice or the time he made two of the three outs in an inning. In essence, McNeil can be thrilling and a little maddening.
“I think baseball is kind of coming back around to those guys,” right fielder Michael Conforto said of his teammate. “It’s not so much about the guys who just launch balls. I think you are seeing teams value guys who play a lot of positions and do all the little things right: steal bases, play defense and spray the ball all over the field.”
With his uncommon hand-eye coordination at the plate, McNeil’s offense is ultimately the reason Manager Mickey Callaway must find places for him to play. Though he can appear off-balance in the batter’s box at times, McNeil patiently keeps his hands back to wait on breaking balls. To Callaway, McNeil’s approach ranks somewhere on the swing spectrum between Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki.
And no matter what happens at the plate, teammates and coaches eagerly await McNeil’s reviews of his own at-bats.
“If the pitcher gets him out with something, he comes back and he says, ‘I’m going to get this guy! If he throws me that pitch again, I’m going to get him!’” Conforto said. “Just constantly overflowing with confidence.”
It was his batting that allowed him to finally break through. Selected in the 12th round of the 2013 draft, McNeil languished in the minors until ripping through Class AA and AAA last season with a combined .342 average, 19 home runs, 36 walks and 71 R.B.I. He continued to do the same after the Mets called him up, stitching together an 11-game hitting streak during one stretch and batting .329 over all in 225 at-bats with three homers, six triples and 19 R.B.I. In a lost season for the Mets, McNeil, at the advanced rookie age of 26, was something of a revelation.
The Mets appreciated McNeil’s ability enough to keep him out of the winter trade that brought closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano from Seattle to Queens. But the acquisitions of Cano in December and Lowrie in January also meant McNeil needed to expand his versatility.
In spring training, McNeil, who also bulked up to 195 pounds, was slated to take 80 percent of his assignments in left field, but then Lowrie went down with a knee injury the first week. Frazier, slated for third base, followed with an oblique strain. McNeil moved to third, picking grounders and talking positioning with Frazier, who has played every spot in the majors except for pitcher, catcher and center field.
“He is going to hit his way into the lineup,” Frazier said. “You have to get your legs under you at each position because it is a lot of different movements everywhere you go.”
McNeil will figure it out. His unconventional path to the Mets included playing baseball as a youth but then giving it up for golf when he got to high school. He eventually competed against Jordan Spieth (now a three-time winner of major golf tournaments) at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in July 2009. Spieth won the tournament, but McNeil still wonders where he may have ended up if he had putted better.
“Who knows where I’d be,” he said.
Troy Buckley, the baseball coach at Long Beach State, was the ultimate beneficiary of McNeil’s transition back to baseball. Unable to secure a golf scholarship, McNeil played baseball for the California Wahoos in a scout league following his junior year of high school, and committed to California State University, Northridge, before ever suiting up for Nipomo High as a senior. But the Northridge coaching staff was fired before McNeil ever made it to campus. In turn, Northridge recommended McNeil to Buckley, who watched him play for one weekend and offered him a scholarship. McNeil was now a Long Beach State Dirtbag.
“He had a pencil-thin neck, those buck teeth and his diet was composed of Mountain Dew and Cheez-Its,” Buckley said. “But I’d ask him to play third, and he would say yes before ever taking a grounder there.”
If Buckley had a hole, McNeil, who weighed just 160 pounds back then, filled it. He started his college career splitting time between second and left. Then he added center field, right field and shortstop. After being drafted by the Mets, injuries slowed his progress. There was a double sports hernia and a torn hip labrum, followed by a torn quadriceps.
The Mets finally took the measure of him last spring. He was a skinny minor leaguer taking repetitions as an infielder.
“I was like, who is this ‘Squirrel’?” Callaway said. “He just raked. He’s going to ambush you if you’re not careful.”
Once he broke through, McNeil settled in quickly in Queens. He stayed in a hotel last summer and fall, but now lives in an apartment with his wife, Tatiana. His cleats were all organized at the bottom of his locker for the team’s home opener in April, and his gloves were in place, as well.
Still, he continues to hoard leather of all kinds. Though he has yet to play first base in the majors, he carries a first baseman’s glove just in case. He is also the team’s emergency catcher, but does not carry a catcher’s mitt.
“Is he going to catch?” Frazier said. “You never know.”
McNeil recently had two words sewn into a new outfield glove. It is a sign that he is finally embracing comparisons to the restless rodent. The words read: “Flying Squirrel.”
Published at Sun, 14 Apr 2019 21:35:08 +0000