December 9, 2022

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Lindor has everyone smiling, and most importantly, himself

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This is what Francisco Lindor looked like on Tuesday against the Giants, in the field and on the bases and at the plate, as the Mets’ record went to 9-3:

He looked like the best and most exciting player in town.

Even when he made an errant throw across the infield to Pete Alonso in Game 1, Alonso saved him. The rest of it was all a smile from the player known as Mr. Smile, four hits in the doubleheader, two in each game. The game-winning single in the bottom of the 10th of Game 1. Two doubles on the day. Two RBIs. And at the end of the long day and night — ninth inning of Game 2, in the shift — he had one last nifty moment, gloving a hard smash by Joc Pederson and turning it into a routine out. And the Mets were 9-3, which meant one more victory than anybody else.

On the SNY telecast, play-by-play man Gary Cohen said, “Lindor has been everywhere in this doubleheader!”

Before that play, Lindor had even moved a few feet to his right, to put himself in the right place at the right time, in this April when the right place has been playing like a complete star for the New York Mets. This is the way he’d hoped his first season at Citi Field would begin for him. It did not. This season has been different.

Buck Showalter was asked after the game if Lindor had moved himself more to his left before Pederson’s swing.

“Probably,” Buck said.

But then Buck talked all spring long about how, in addition to all the things that Lindor can do on a ballfield, he also knows the game, including the rules. So far this season, as he and the Mets have played the way they have, and they were only a couple of eighth-inning meltdowns by their bullpen, one against the Nationals and one against the Phillies, from being 11-1, the Mets’ colors really have been Lindor-blue (his hair) and orange.

Showalter’s first message to him in Port St. Lucie, Fla., turned out to be the most important, like it was the first sign he gave Francisco Lindor:

“You just play shortstop, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Maybe when Aaron Judge, who’s looking for the same kind of deal from the Yankees that the Mets gave Lindor after they made the trade for him with Cleveland, starts hitting home runs, there will be a fair conversation about who the best player in New York is. Just not now. And as good an outfielder as Judge is, he can’t do all the baseball things that Lindor can do. Nobody in town can. The player he is right now for the Mets is the player he was in Cleveland. A switch-hitting shortstop with power who is a streak of light on the bases while also chasing down ground balls. He is still just 28 years old.

Lindor hit .230 last season for the Mets. But even after missing 37 games with injuries, he still managed to hit 20 home runs. So far this season he is hitting .310, has walked more than he has struck out, has a short-sampling OPS of 1.061, is slugging .619 and has an on-base percentage of .442. He occasionally got booed by his own fans last season. On Tuesday, he heard some “MVP” chants, as he continues to make a second first impression with Mets fans.

“Pretty cool, feels good, whenever you’re in the position that everybody’s running to you, it feels special. It feels good to turn around and see everybody coming,” Lindor said about the scene on the field after he won Game 1. “I’m in a good spot right now. I’m just focused on winning and doing whatever it takes to win.”

The good spot is New York. The way he is playing right now is of course why the Mets made the trade for him, and why they paid him to be around for 10 years. There have been other talented position players for the Mets. They have never had anybody who could do all the things that Lindor can do, and do well, when he is at the top of his game. Darryl Strawberry was such an exciting home run swing when he was young. David Wright was something to see before his body let him down, and so was the young José Reyes. Carlos Beltrán had some great years in New York. So did Mike Piazza. The Mets have never had anybody quite like Francisco Lindor.

This is what he said to me one Spring Training afternoon when I mentioned that he had a chance to hit the reset button.

“I don’t look at it that way at all,” he said. “Because hitting the reset button would mean forgetting all the things I learned last season. And I learned a lot.”

He learned a lot about New York, he learned a lot about himself, in real time, with all eyes on him after he signed the $341 million contract, with expectations for him sky high. And right now it shows. One year later, Francisco Lindor is clearly ready for his closeup. Nobody has to remind him to smile.

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