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The running joke between Buck Showalter and Jeff McNeil is that the ball is going to be hit wherever it needs to go to test McNeil’s leg.
Stick McNeil at second base and he will need to charge a grounder and make an off-balance throw, as he did a couple days ago. Slide McNeil to left field and he will have to run back to the warning track to make the catch, as he did in the first inning Sunday.
“The ball is going to find you,” McNeil said.
McNeil passed both tests in the field and just as importantly was the catalyst in a rally for the first time in the five games since he returned from a week-long absence due to hamstring tightness, leading the Mets to a 4-1 win against the Texas Rangers at Citi Field on Sunday.
“If he’s not on the All-Star team, I don’t see how,” Showalter said. “I’m not one of those guys who forgets everything guys have done through the year just because you don’t get a hit every at-bat.”
Showalter and McNeil talk frequently about which of his defensive positions is less taxing on his leg. The conclusion? It’s anyone’s guess.
“We both say it would be different if we knew what kind of balls were going to be hit to you,” Showalter said. “His leg is fine. There is no pain or problem. I think until he gets a few days behind him it’s going to be a little tentative. But I know Jeff in the heat of the moment is going to go for it — he’s going to go first to third [base] or going to try to catch that baseball.”
McNeil’s first start in left field since June 19 was quiet after that first inning, until Ender Inciarte took over as a defensive replacement in the top of the ninth. With the tying run at the plate, Inciarte chased down the final out of the game in the gap.
By then, McNeil had already done his damage. After Pete Alonso reached second base on an error leading off the fourth, McNeil pulled a tie-breaking RBI double into the right-field corner. Eduardo Escobar followed with his third home run in as many games to make it 4-1.
“I’ve been out a few days and that’s always tough,” McNeil said. “When I got to the plate there, I was just trying to get Pete to third. That was probably the one time I wasn’t trying to get a hit. Lucky enough to get it down the line.”
McNeil returned to the No. 8 hole on June 28 — a spot that he has occupied 18 times but that doesn’t maximize his .360 batting average with runners on base. He was 1-for-12 since his return before the 100th double of his career.
“A few times, the last few days, I’m cautious of [my leg] just coming off what has gone on the last week,” McNeil said. “I’m trying to play smart. [Sunday] was a good test. I was able to run 100 percent a couple of times and felt great. It feels good to be myself again.”
McNeil delivered Sunday as Alonso’s protection from the No. 5 hole, which could soon belong to a power-hitting trade-deadline acquisition. There still will be room for McNeil.
“I’m always a little surprised when I look out on the board because it seems like he’s got 50 or 60 RBIs,” Showalter said of McNeil, who has driven in 34 this season. “He’s driven in a lot of big runs for us.”