July 6, 2022

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Did a Rally Rat ignite Mets? No, Squirrel did

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WASHINGTON — Rat or raccoon, rat or mouse? The Mets don’t particularly care so long as they have a Squirrel.

Perhaps it was the presence of a rat skittering across Nationals Park on Tuesday that ignited Jeff McNeil, or perhaps it was merely the fact that McNeil has been this type of force throughout the young season. Whatever the case, McNeil played an outsized role in the Mets’ 4-2 win over the Nationals, collecting two hits and two RBIs while cutting down another run on a relay throw to the plate.

That it happened while his kindred rodent roamed the stadium was (probably) coincidence.

“That,” McNeil said laughing, “was a rat.”

The clarification was necessary because of what unfolded last year at Citi Field, when McNeil and shortstop Francisco Lindor explained away an in-game tussle by saying they were arguing about whether a rat or a raccoon had appeared in the clubhouse tunnel. At the time, the squabble seemed to be a symptom of the issues that wound up plaguing the Mets throughout a disappointing season.

A year later, the chemistry within the Mets’ clubhouse appears much improved, in part because the play on the field has been as well.

McNeil is a significant reason why. Coming off a down year that saw him bat a career-low .251, McNeil now ranks sixth in the National League with a .333 average. His multihit performance on Tuesday was his 12th in 29 games, highlighted by a game-tying two-run double that he powered past Josh Bell at first base.

“I’m basically just trying to get one run in there,” McNeil said of the bases-loaded, one-out situation. “I’m not trying to do too much. The main goal there is to put a barrel on the ball and get one run in for sure. After that, it’s a bonus.”

While that has been McNeil’s mantra throughout his career, it’s something he struggled to do last season. Part of it was due to poor luck, but part was due to McNeil’s growing desire to hit the ball with power, which diminished his natural ability to put the ball in play.

When he’s going right, McNeil is an expert at doing precisely that. Sometimes, his approach means taking an inside pitch and pulling it, as McNeil did on his two-run double. Other times, it means directing the ball to the opposite field or back up the middle, as McNeil did in collecting his second hit in the eighth.

Manager Buck Showalter compared McNeil to a pitcher with multiple weapons at his disposal — fastballs, breaking balls, offspeed pitches. With McNeil, it’s different types of swings. As a result, opposing managers have wrestled with the decision of whether to apply defensive overshifts against McNeil, who has proven his ability to beat them.

“He’s got great feel for the barrel of the bat,” Showalter said. “He can hit them where it’s pitched. He can maneuver the bat. It’s like a point guard coming down and surveying the defense, and deciding where he’s going to deliver the ball.”

Combined with McNeil’s glovework at second base, those abilities have placed him among the NL’s early-season WAR leaders. On Tuesday, McNeil applied a quick tag on Dee Strange-Gordon to help James McCann catch him stealing. McNeil also played a key role in a relay to cut down Yadiel Hernandez at the plate, grabbing Brandon Nimmo’s throw from right-center and firing home to turn a potential two-run double into an inning-ender in the fourth.

Two innings later, the rat showed up, catching the attention of McNeil and others as Carlos Carrasco worked on another quality start. This wasn’t the Mets’ first brush with a small, furry intruder. Back in 2018 in a game at Fenway Park, a rat infiltrated the visiting dugout, prompting players to peer under the bench and poke around with baseball bats.

McNeil earned his own rodent nickname in college, receiving the moniker “Flying Squirrel” for his reckless dives around the diamond and his overall resemblance to, well, a squirrel. When his professional teammates found out about it, McNeil initially resisted, before giving into the inevitability that he would be Squirrel for the rest of his career.

If it takes the presence of another rodent to bring out the best in him, McNeil won’t complain.

“We’re playing some really good baseball,” McNeil said. “I’m super happy with how we’re playing.”

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