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JOHNSTON: Mets take a page out of game's lore and 'hit 'em where they ain't'

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Nationals Mets Baseball (copy)

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter (11) works in the dugout in the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in New York.

Every spring, the “experts” talk about how weak the National League East is going to be, but that division has won the World Series two out of the last three years (the Nationals in 2019 and the Braves in 2021).

Is this the New York Mets turn? With the baseball season nearing its halfway point, the Mets seem to be a team of destiny. Several times, Buck Showalter’s squad has used timely hitting and strong pitching to come up with some ninth inning heroics and turn losses into wins, something teams of destiny often do.

New York leads the Eastern Division despite the fact that its two best pitchers —Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer—are currently on the injured list. deGrom hasn’t thrown a ball in anger all season (arm problems) and Scherzer had missed almost half his starts with a muscle pull.

Carlos Corrasco, Taijuan Walker, David Peterson, Chris Bassit and Tyler McGill have taken up the slack, but now McGill is hurt and not expected back until mid-August. Still, the Mets roll on.

A big part of New York’s early season success is their approach to hitting. First baseman Pete Alonzo is leading the National League in home runs, but the Mets have no other big bashers and don’t rely on round-trippers like the Atlanta Braves.

Instead, several Mets hitters are doing their Wee Willie Keeler impersonation and hitting it where they ain’t. Since infield shifts became popular a decade ago, baseball purists like me have advocated batters giving up on pulling pitches and hitting the ball to the opposite field. After all, if one side of the infield is left open, there is no one to catch even the weakest grounder.

Until this year most sluggers have refused to go away from their power, but this season that is changing and the Mets are at the forefront of the movement. Even Alonzo has been inside-outing the ball on occasion and getting clutch hits to right field.

But no one is better at hitting them where they ain’t than Jeff McNeil. McNeil, who is among National League leaders in batting average, is a throwback to the old days and will hit the ball where it is pitched. Yes, he can put the ball in the seats on occasion, but if the opposition shifts on him, he is not too proud to punch a ground ball through the vacated shortstop hole.

In fact, there is a strong case that McNeil is New York’s most valuable player so far. Yes, Alonzo has the power numbers (he leads the National League in runs batter in), but McNeil has had some clutch hits at key moments. He has played multiple positions (mostly left field and second base) and is a heady base runner. He’s my kind of baseball player.

During special seasons, everyone on a ball club contributes and thus far that has been the case for the Mets. Utility infielder Luis Guilliorme is having a career year and catcher Tomas Nido has hit well while filling in behind the plate.

It may have to be a special season for the Mets to win the East because the Atlanta Braves, who started slowly, have caught fire. The Bravos have played especially well since star outfielder Ronald Acuna returned from knee surgery. The Braves have pitching and power hitting and, barring catastrophic injuries, should be there until the end.

The Philadelphia Phillies are coming, too, and even though they don’t have the Braves’ pitching, the Phils have the hitters and may be a formidable force by season’s end.

The Miami Marlins have the pitching but not the bats. Yet, the Fish may end up having a .500 season.

Then there is Washington, which has no pitching and no hitting. The team’s only legitimate star, Juan Soto, is barely hitting his weight with first basemen Josh Bell carrying most of the offensive load. The hapless Nats may lose 100 games this season.

If the Mets keep rolling, we just might see an all-New York World Series because the Yankees are way past hot. They are sizzling. With July only a few days away, the Bronx Bombers still haven’t lost 20 games, an amazing stat. And by season’s end Aaron Judge may have more white seats in Yankee Stadium than Frank Howard had in D.C.

The best division race is setting up in the National League West where the superstar Dodgers are trying to fend off the no-name San Diego Padres. It doesn’t seem that either club will get any competition from the aging Giants, who need to retool.

But with the Braves

and Phillies on the move, the National League East race may be just as entertaining.

Can the Mets hang on? Will Jacob deGrom ever pitch again?

Come to think of it, that’s what Washington is wondering when it comes to Stephen Strasburg.

I don’t think he will.

Good money down the drain.

Donnie Johnston:

djohn40330@aol.com

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