Kevin Pillar’s return to Mets only adds to ‘cult hero’ status

PHOENIX — Pete Alonso’s thunder and Jacob deGrom’s dominance were at the forefront Monday, but another Mets contribution perhaps loomed larger in the big picture.

Kevin Pillar, activated before the game, delivered an eighth-inning single in his first plate appearance off the injured list. Pillar had earlier entered the game as a defensive replacement in left field for Dominic Smith.

Pillar’s return came two weeks after he was drilled in the face by a 95-mph fastball from Atlanta’s Jacob Webb. Pillar underwent subsequent surgery for a broken nose.

If there was any question whether Pillar would be reflexively shy about hitting, they may have been answered by his single against Ryan Buchter.

“The thing that really stands out is Kevin Pillar, the dude is just a warrior,” Alonso said after blasting a homer and driving in four runs to lead the Mets to a 6-2 victory over the Diamondbacks. “His attitude and how he approaches the game is just really special.

“Tonight was a really cool night and I am happy for Kevin and to be able to dig in there and get that knock and get that monkey off his shoulder, he’s got stones and he’s got a really tough, gritty attitude.”

Kevin Pillar
Kevin Pillar singled in his return to the Mets on Monday.

DeGrom, who pitched six scoreless innings, also saluted Pillar.

“The way he plays the game and how hard he plays and how much he wants to be out there, I have a tremendous respect for him,” deGrom said. “It was terrible when he got hit … for him to come up and get a hit that first time, everybody was pumped for him and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”

Pillar said the expectation is the Mets will consider him for the starting lineup as soon as Wednesday. A compromise was reached between him and the club that placed him on the roster Monday with the understanding he would ramp up baseball activity before rejoining the starting lineup.

“The thing I pride myself the most on is being available and it’s important for me to get back as soon as possible considering everything that is going on with this team right now and just make myself available,” Pillar said before the game.

He added that he’s pain-free and will wear a protective mask when playing the field and running the bases for the next four to six weeks.

Pillar has become a cult hero of sorts among Mets fans who are appreciative of his toughness — he initially had hoped to play through the injury.

“I didn’t set out to be a cult hero, I didn’t set out to do anything,” Pillar said. “I just feel like I get paid to play baseball and there’s a lot of people that go through injuries and illnesses and are expected to show up for work every day, I don’t feel any different.”

Pillar relayed a personal story of finding out in recent days that his mother was sick and the concern he felt. When he called the following day to check on her, he said she was back at work.

“That’s kind of how I was raised and how my parents are,” Pillar said. “When I’m ready to go I am ready to go.”

The Mets initially used Johneshwy Fargas in Pillar’s spot, but the rookie outfielder last week sustained a shoulder sprain after crashing into the fence and was placed on the IL. Cameron Maybin (who was designated for assignment Monday) had played the position over the past week. Newcomer Mason Williams started in center Monday.

The Mets own a five-game winning streak largely on strong pitching and contributions from new additions such as Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney, with Bench Mob holdovers Jose Peraza and Tomas Nido adding to the success.

“You never expect to get to the depth that maybe we got to during this season,” Pillar said. “It just shows you [the front office] valued bringing in depth this offseason and a lot of it has to do with the culture that Luis [Rojas] created in that clubhouse and the players have created in that clubhouse.

“It’s good to see some guys coming back. I feel like we’re maybe a week or two weeks away from getting some more guys back. Hopefully we get on a roll here and health is on our side for the rest of the year.”