Struggling McNeil, Conforto save Mets homer opener

The biggest hit was not to Michael Conforto’s elbow guard. That was the most interesting, controversial and memorable.

But the biggest hit of the Mets’ home opener — and of their young season — came off Jeff McNeil’s bat, which he then flipped toward the home dugout in a gesture of both revelry and relief. Such was the mounting exasperation of both McNeil and his team to deliver a clutch moment in this nascent season.

In his next-to-last at-bat, leading off the sixth inning, McNeil popped an 0-2 pitch from Miami’s Ross Detwiler foul off the third-base line. He did not even watch the trajectory of the ball nor the outcome. With the ball still climbing, McNeil wheeled toward the first-base dugout, pulled his helmet off and muttered as behind him Brian Anderson recorded an out that dropped McNeil to 0-for-10 in 2021.

“He got a little emotional in the middle of the game,” Luis Rojas said.

But McNeil got a little exceptional at the end of the game.

The Mets went to the bottom of the ninth trailing 2-1 mainly because they were hitless in eight at-bats with men on base and 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. This was after a 1-for-12 with men in scoring position Wednesday in a loss in Philadelphia. Thus, a “here we go again” recall to 2020 and the absence of meaningful hits in key moments was dousing the joy of fans being back inside Citi Field.

Then Marlins closer Anthony Bass fell behind McNeil 3-1. Rojas said do not look at the .319 career average McNeil took into this season or his elite contact skills and think of the Mets second baseman as Wade Boggs 2.0, feathering the ball to left field. Rojas, in fact, thought some spring training/early-season doldrums for McNeil were due to him inside-outing the ball for “Jeff is a pull hitter.”

Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto
Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

And Bass put that 3-1 pitch into a lefty pull hitter’s happy spot, 95 mph thigh high on the inner half, a present to McNeil on his 29th birthday.

Advertisement

“As soon as it left my bat, I knew it,” he said.

What McNeil knew before the ball even landed 409 feet away beyond the right-field fence was that the score was tied 2-2. Like with his earlier foul pop out to Anderson, McNeil did not need to watch the ball land to know the outcome, and so he sailed his bat in a high arc as he faced the Met dugout and exalted.

McNeil said he had never bat flipped before, but was recognizing “one of my biggest moments as a Met.”

The score tied, the Mets then loaded the bases. Bass went inside to the other prominent struggling Met. His 1-2 slider to Conforto would have been strike three, and that is initially what home plate ump Ron Kulpa called. But then he recognized the ball had nicked Conforto’s elbow guard and awarded a walk-off hit by pitch.

The Marlins argued that Conforto had purposefully jutted his elbow into the path of the pitch — and Conforto’s elbow was in the strike zone. But by rule, the replay supervisor — stupidly — can only review if there was a hit by pitch, not intent. Intent is the judgment of a home plate ump who has milliseconds to call if the pitch was a strike or a hit by pitch. Kulpa called both. The hit by pitch stood. Only after seeing the replay did Kulpa tell a pool reporter, “The guy [Conforto] was hit by the pitch in the strike zone. I should have called him out.”

Advertisement

After the Mets’ first victory of 2021, in Philadelphia, Rojas grabbed the final game ball to present to Steve Cohen for his first win as owner. The final game ball from win No. 2 should probably go to the Mets Hall of Fame & Museum at Citi Field to represent perhaps the greatest regular-season gift win in team history.

“It was definitely interesting, I’d never seen that,” Rojas said.

What he has not seen is McNeil and Conforto hit well. Through the first three games and eight innings there was not much of that. While Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith were assembling one good plate appearance after another, many Met chances were fizzling with McNeil and Conforto.

In the ninth inning, McNeil off his bat and Conforto off his padded elbow delivered meaningful hits for the first time in 2021, bringing a joyous finale for the 20 percent capacity. Perhaps this will launch the Mets to expected offensive pyrotechnics, considering how vital McNeil and Conforto are to the length and might of the lineup.

At the least, the duo made the end of the home opener memorable with a blast and a blessing.

Advertisement