Which Met do you want at the plate with game on the line?

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Jonathan Villar/Michael Conforto/Brandon Nimmo/Jeff McNeil Treated Image
Jonathan Villar/Michael Conforto/Brandon Nimmo/Jeff McNeil Treated Image

The winning formula for the 2021 Mets has mostly been pitching, defense, and a healthy dose of grit. Tuesday night, for example, they looked overmatched for the second time in a week by Charlie Morton, and yet they rallied late in stunning fashion for a 4-3 win over the Braves.

A James McCann three-run home run. A Jose Peraza double and a Francisco Lindor tie-breaking single.

Who had that winning trifecta ticket?

And who says the Mets can’t hit?

Well, actually, the numbers make that case, as the Mets are still the lowest-scoring team in the majors. Even with the win Tuesday night they’ve scored only 37 runs in their last 14 games, or 2.64 runs per game.

It was with that in mind, while searching for a different way to tell the same story, that in the last couple of days, or before the Mets’ show of clutch hitting Tuesday night, I asked 12 Mets-related people -- prominent fans, writers, scouts, former players -- which 2021 team member (injured or healthy) they’d most want/trust at the plate to deliver with the game on the line.

Only one person answered without hesitation.

“That’s easy,” Wally Backman said over the phone. “It’s [Jacob] deGrom.”

Yes, the Mets have been alone in first place since May 9th, and they seem to have that little bit of magic you see in winning teams, but the lack of offense doesn’t inspire tremendous confidence from people who either live and die with them or simply observe them on a daily basis.

There is an appreciation for the ability to find ways to win, absolutely, but can they stay on top, even in a weak NL East, if this is who they are offensively?

Rather than simply expound on the ugly numbers, I thought that posing my question to various people who watch the Mets closely would be a more intriguing way of making the same point.

And sure enough, the answers were evidence of the lack of obvious choices. That is, the 12 people I spoke to picked eight different players. Only one person picked Lindor. And nobody even brought up McCann’s name as a possibility.

So maybe it’s one of those years for the Mets.

But just for fun, I offer this informal poll for some entertainment value.

As for my own pick, I’ll go with Jeff McNeil, despite some awful clutch numbers that includes a .121 average (4-for-33) with runners in scoring position, because he had enough solid at-bats the last two nights to convince me he’s about to get on a roll.

Is it a leap of faith? Sure it is. But everybody who answered this question had to take such a leap to some extent. Here are their choices:

1) WALLY BACKMAN: MICHAEL CONFORTO

As I mentioned earlier, Backman, the manager of the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League these days, instantly threw out the name of Jacob deGrom, saying, “The {bleep]er can hit.”

But when I told him I wanted a position player, he hemmed and hawed for a minute or so before deciding on Conforto, who has been very inconsistent this season before and after his hamstring injury.

“I managed him in Triple-A and I know he’s mentally tough, to go with his talent, so I think he’ll break out in a big way,” said Backman. “He just needs to stay in the middle of the field and not fall into the habit of trying to pull.”

2) BOB HEUSSLER: BRANDON NIMMO

The long-time update guy at WFAN and such a die-hard that Mike Francesa famously nicknamed him Mr. Met, Heussler took several minutes ticking off the names on the roster before deciding on Nimmo, who is leading the team hitting .385 with runners in scoring position, albeit with a small sample size (5-for-13) because of a finger injury that has kept him out since May 2nd.

“It’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “There should be a no-brainer but there’s not. I’ll say Nimmo because I feel like he’ll give you a good at-bat in a big spot. But a lot of it is that I don’t think he’ll screw it up as bad as some of the other guys. And I’m usually a glass half-full guy…but watching this offense is tough. Geez, I must sound like Joe Benigno.”

3) MAGGIE GRAY: JONATHAN VILLAR

The mid-day host at WFAN along with Marc Malusis, Gray is a passionate Mets’ fan going back to growing up in Binghamton, watching the Mets’ Double-A affiliate. Unlike some others on this list, she says the lack of offense hasn’t dulled her interest in watching the team because “they always deliver on drama.”

In any case, after much waffling -- “Can I say Mike Piazza?” -- Maggie talked herself into Villar, sort of. “If I’m being truly, truly honest, and we’re talking about just this season, Villar seems like a guy who’s gotten some big hits for them this season.”

Villar has been a pleasant surprise, no doubt. And as a bench player his timely hits have largely camouflaged his .195 average with runners in scoring position.

4) TIM KURKJIAN: McNEIL

A long-time national baseball writer and TV analyst for ESPN, Kurkjian is on top of the Mets’ struggles, hitting me with this stat before answering my question: “They’re averaging 1.8 runs per game in their losses,” he said incredulously. “One-point-eight, are you kidding me?”

As such Kurkjian took a pragmatic approach to picking McNeil, based more on his .309 career batting average than what he’s done this season.

“I have to believe anybody who’s a career .300 hitter can’t be as bad as he’s looked,” Kurkjian said. “I love a guy who will still hit a line drive through an open hole these days. And, seriously, who has been very good on this team that I’d take instead?"

5) SAL LICATA: FRANCISCO LINDOR

As well as I’ve come to know Sal over the last 15 years, working with him often at SNY, he never fails to surprise me with his extreme opinions driven by his intense Mets’ fandom. Already this season he went from early doom-and-gloom, going so far as to intentionally spell his once-favorite player Michael Conforto’s name as Konforto -- with a “K” -- on Twitter, to suddenly declaring in recent weeks that the Mets are going to “run away” with the NL East race.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Sal, an overnight host on WFAN, was the only person in this exercise to declare his faith in the underachieving Lindor as the guy he’d want at the plate in a big spot.

“First of all, there’s no easy answer,” said. “And I know this sounds nuts, because he’s looked bad at times, but I actually still think Lindor is the best hitter of the bunch. He’s gotten some big hits lately and I do believe there’s more there.”

He said that only hours before Lindor delivered the go-ahead run against the Braves on Tuesday night. Salstradamus.

6) JOE BENIGNO: KEVIN PILLAR

Happy in retirement, playing as much golf as he promised his WFAN listeners he would when he stepped away, Benigno remains dedicated to rooting for the Mets, and when I talked to him he was upbeat about the state of this team, even given the offensive struggles. His pick was based at least partly on his admiration for the way Pillar famously handled getting hit in the face by a fastball a month or so ago.

“He’s a real blood-and-guts guy and I love that,” Joe said. “And he gives you tough at-bats so I’ll go with him. I really like what he and other depth guys like Villar have given this team.”

Benigno’s only complaint? “DeGrom’s gotta start going deeper into games. I mean, come on.”

Ah, we miss you, Joe.

7) ANTHONY RECKER: NIMMO

Recker, the former Mets’ backup catcher, is becoming an important voice at SNY on BNNY and sometimes the pre-and post-game shows, with his catcher’s smarts and his not-so-distant perspective as a player. And he doesn’t pull punches.

“I’d have to go with Nimmo,” Recker said, “because I’m not feeling good about any of the healthy guys right now. Nimmo was hot before he got hurt, and you know he’s going to put together a good at-bat in a big spot, where I don’t know if I’m going to get that from anybody else. It’s frustrating watching these guys because they’ve hit in the past. I think a lot of it is in their approach. They need a better individualized approach for each hitter against the pitcher that night, and they need a team approach as well.”

8) BOB OJEDA: CONFORTO

Ojeda answered his phone accidentally when I called, in the middle of a river in Montana, where he was trout fishing with fellow ’86 Met Howard Johnson. So after I talked him out of hanging up on me, the former SNY analyst offered an insightful take on his choice of Conforto, with HoJo shouting his agreement from nearby.

“I think he’s a guy who can hit a pitcher’s pitch in a big spot,” said Ojeda. “Michael won me over, especially last year. I watched him have some 10-pitch at-bats where he battled to stay alive against good pitching and found a way to put his bat on the ball. I know he didn’t get off to a great start before he got hurt, but he’s a guy I trust. Now let me go, will ya? The fish are calling my name.”

Jun 26, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets right fielder Michael Conforto (30) is mobbed by teammates after hitting a sacrifice fly to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field.
Jun 26, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets right fielder Michael Conforto (30) is mobbed by teammates after hitting a sacrifice fly to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field.

9) ED COLEMAN: VILLAR

The great Eddie C., still making deep jump shots in spring training media hoops games as well as covering the Mets for WFAN after all these years, thought about the question for a minute before suddenly saying, “Oh, it’s gotta be deGrom. I feel like he’ll get his bat on the ball in a big spot.”

Finally, at my insistence on picking a position player, Coleman settled on Villar, saying, “He strikes out a lot but he seems to have a knack for coming up with the big hit. You can’t say that about many guys this year. I like the way he plays, defensively, on the bases. I think he’s added a lot to the ballclub.”

10) CHRIS HARPER: J.D. DAVIS

As a former college pitcher and a die-hard whose complaining about his favorite team gave me the idea for this column, my Mets-fan son gets his say here.

“That’s tough,” he said when I posed the question. “My gut says Conforto but he’s been so inconsistent this year…honestly I’d have to say J.D. Davis. I know his defense at third is a problem but I really think they’ve missed his bat. I like his approach. When he needs a hit to drive in a run, he seems to be one guy who will look to go the other way, especially with two strikes. This team doesn’t do enough of that.”

11) MLB SCOUT NO. 1: PETE ALONSO

A scout who has seen a lot of the Mets this season said simply: “There’s really not anybody I’d feel real confident about right now. So my choice is Alonso because over the course of the season I think he’ll do the most damage in RBI situations. I think his approach in those situations is solid. I’ve seen him be willing to take the outside pitch to the right side, and still be ready to pull the trigger on something he can pull with his big power. He’s still chasing more than he did as a rookie, but I think he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do.”

12) MLB SCOUT NO. 2: PILLAR

“This goes against the scouting handbook,” the second scout said, “because talent is usually the deciding factor when you’re making a call like this. But when I watch the Mets I see a lot of talented hitters who struggle to get big hits so I’ll take my chances with a guy like Pillar.

“He’s not the most talented guy but I love his intangibles and I feel like he’ll find a way to put a decent swing on a pitch in a big spot. I saw where he said he’s finally learning to drive the ball to the opposite field, and he’s hit a couple of home runs that way, so that’s a point in his favor too. I still think the Mets will pick it up offensively, they have a lot of good hitters, but right now can’t really make much of an argument for picking anybody else.”