Mets’ Jeff McNeil wins NL batting title while sitting on bench in finale

NEW YORK — Jeff McNeil stayed in the lead without taking a momentum.

With a four-point lead in the Big League batting race, McNeil was not included in the New York Mets lineup for Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Washington. He only played defense after coming on as a late substitute and finished with the highest average in the majors – a point ahead of Los Angeles Dodgers star Freddie Freeman.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” said McNeil. “One of my goals in baseball is to win a batting title.”

Mets manager Buck Showalter said it was his decision to seed McNeil as New York prepares for a wildcard playoff series against the San Diego Padres that begins Friday night.

“I wouldn’t put that through him,” Showalter said. “The most important thing is Friday. Everything else comes second.”

However, Showalter hinted that McNeil could have come off the bench earlier if he needed a hit or two to stop Freeman for the National League batting crown.

“I don’t trust my math well enough to — I got some help. I don’t want to be wrong,” Showalter said before the game, cracking a laugh. “So at least I have someone to blame, even if I have to carry it.”

McNeil led the majors with a .326 average. Luis Arraez of Minnesota won the AL batting crown with a .316 average, becoming the champion batting in both leagues for the first time.

“He deserves everything,” Showalter said of McNeil. “To be able to give him a moment that he deserves – he doesn’t ask for it and he would have played tonight and all those things. He deserves everything.”

Freeman was at .322 after going 0-4 against Colorado on Tuesday night and needed to go 4-4 or better on Wednesday to surpass McNeil. The 2020 NL MVP went 3-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs to finish at .325.

“I was close,” Freeman said. “I tried.”

McNeil and his teammates watched as the start of the New York game was delayed nearly two hours by rain.

“You’re getting a little nervous. He swings the bat well. It’s Freddie Freeman. Four hits is normal for him,” McNeil said.

Freeman’s flyout onto the midfield warning lane in the fifth all but ended his hopes.

“He put a good swing on it,” McNeil said. “Just happy that one stayed in the park.”

Freeman finished the season with 199 hits and 100 RBIs for the NL West champion.

After the Dodgers clinched a 6-1 win over Colorado, the Mets displayed a message on the large video board in midfield midway through the fourth inning, congratulating McNeil on winning the batting crown.

He received a standing ovation from the Citi Field crowd, but it appeared he wasn’t in the dugout at the time. A few moments later, he emerged in a Mets jacket and smiled as he tipped his cap in front of cheering fans.

“I expect to be a .300 every year, so I want to be here,” said McNeil, who surpassed .300 three times before falling to .251 last year. “I wanted to get back to who I am.”

As the Mets drew closer to a 9-2 win, McNeil stepped up to play eighth base at second base to allow Luis Guillorme to slip to shortstop and Francisco Lindor to come off the field to a fan ovation.

McNeil knew he could afford to take one at the plate and still beat Freeman – but his place in the order never came up.

“Happy how it worked out,” McNeil said. “I played 148 games, I think. I’ve played more than in my entire career. So it was kind of nice to get a tag.”

A while back, Lindor promised to buy McNeil a car if he wins a batting crown.

“I’ll get him a car. I didn’t specify which car,” Lindor said with a smile.

McNeil said: “I’m sure he has something up his sleeve so we’ll see. Hopefully it’s something pretty cool.”

McNeil was the first Mets player to lead the majors in batting. Jose Reyes was the only previous player in franchise history to win an NL batting crown when he hit .337 in 2011.

“I’ll get him a car. I didn’t specify which car.”

Francisco Lindor on his promise to Jeff McNeil

Reyes drew criticism that year when he opened the season finale with a colorful single and then left the game to defend his lead.

Hall-of-Famer batter Ted Williams famously played both games of a doubleheader on the final day of the 1941 campaign, when sitting out would have yielded a .400 batting average. Williams went 6-for-8 and finished at .406, making him the last big player to hit .400.

But players sitting out the last day of a season to preserve individual stats or achievements is hardly uncommon — especially when resting for the playoffs.

McNeil ended the season with a 10-game hitting streak. He batted .465 (20-for-43) with eight multihit games from September 23.

He hit .287 coming into play on July 30, leaving him well behind Freeman (.319) and St. Louis Cardinals batter Paul Goldschmidt (.334). But 30-year-old McNeil, a two-time All-Star, batted .378 afterwards.

The major league overall batting average of .243 was the lowest since a record low of .237 in 1968, the last season before the pitcher’s mound was lowered. MLB will ban defensive shifts starting next year, which will likely help hitters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mets’ Jeff McNeil wins NL batting title while sitting on bench in finale

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