NEW YORK — Jeff McNeil stayed on top without taking a swing.
Nursing a four-point lead in the big league batting race, McNeil was not in the New York Mets‘ lineup Wednesday for their regular-season finale against Washington. He only played defense after entering late and finished with the highest average in the majors — one point ahead of Los Angeles Dodgers star Freddie Freeman.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” McNeil said. “This is one of my goals in baseball is to win a batting title.”
Mets manager Buck Showalter said it was his decision to sit McNeil as New York prepped for a wild-card playoff series versus the San Diego Padres that begins Friday night.
“Wouldn’t put that on him,” Showalter said. “The most important thing is Friday. Everything else takes second.”
Showalter, however, hinted McNeil could have come off the bench earlier if he needed a hit or two to hold off Freeman for the National League batting crown.
“I don’t trust my math well enough to — I got some help. Don’t want to be wrong,” Showalter said before the game, drawing a laugh. “So at least I’ll have somebody to blame it on, even though I’ll have to wear it.”
“He earned it all the way,” 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 earned everything.”
Freeman was at .322 after going 0-for-4 on Tuesday night versus Colorado, and needed to go 4-for-4 or better Wednesday to top 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 gave it a run.”
McNeil and his teammates were watching, as the start of New York’s game was delayed almost two hours by rain.
“You get a little bit nervous. He’s swinging the bat well. It’s Freddie Freeman. Four hits is normal for him,” McNeil said.
Freeman’s flyout to the center-field warning track in the fifth all but ended his hopes.
“He put a good swing on it,” McNeil said. “Just lucky that one stayed in the park.”
Freeman ended the season with 199 hits and 100 RBIs for the NL West champions.
Once the Dodgers completed a 6-1 victory over Colorado, the Mets flashed a message on the large video board in center field in the middle of the fourth inning congratulating McNeil for 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 came out in a Mets jacket and smiled as he tipped his cap to cheering fans.
“I expect to be a .300 hitter every single year, so this is where I want to be,” said McNeil, who topped .300 three times before dipping to .251 last year. “I wanted to get back to who I am.”
With the Mets closing in on a 9-2 victory, McNeil entered to play second base in the eighth so Luis Guillorme could slide over to shortstop and Francisco Lindor could come off the field to an ovation from fans.
McNeil knew he could afford to make one out at the plate and still beat Freeman — but his spot in the order never came up.
“Happy the way it worked out,” McNeil said. “I’ve played I think 148 games. I’ve played more than I have my entire career. So it kind of was nice to get a day.”
A while back, Lindor promised to buy McNeil a car if he won a batting crown.
“I will get him a car. I didn’t specify what car,” Lindor said with a smile.
Said McNeil: “I’m sure he’s got something up his sleeve, so we’ll see. Hopefully it’s something pretty cool.”
McNeil became the first Mets player to lead the majors in hitting. Jose Reyes was the only previous player in franchise history to win an NL batting crown, when he hit .337 in 2011.
“I will get him a car. I didn’t specify what car.”
Francisco Lindor on his promise to Jeff McNeil
Reyes drew criticism that year when he opened the season finale with a bunt single, then left the game to protect his lead.
Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams famously played both games of a doubleheader on the last day of the 1941 campaign when sitting out would have secured a .400 batting average. Williams went 6-for-8 to finish at .406, making him the last major leaguer to hit .400.
But players sitting out on the final day of a season to preserve individual statistics or achievements is hardly unheard of — especially when resting for the playoffs.
McNeil finished the season on a 10-game hitting streak. He batted .465 (20-for-43) with eight multihit games from Sept. 23 on.
He was hitting .287 entering play on July 30, leaving him far behind Freeman (.319) and St. Louis Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt (.334). But the 30-year-old McNeil, a two-time All-Star, batted .378 after that.
The overall major league batting average of .243 was the lowest since the record bottom of .237 in 1968, the last season before the pitcher’s mound was lowered. MLB will ban defensive shifts starting next year, a move likely to help hitters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.