WASHINGTON — It took back surgery that ended Neil Walker‘s season and a neck injury to Wilmer Flores for T.J. Rivera to get into the lineup Tuesday at second base. The rookie then rescued the New York Mets from what would have been a crushing defeat.
Rivera was starting a major league game for the first time since Aug. 23. He had won the Pacific Coast League batting title in early September before returning upon the completion of Triple-A Las Vegas’ season.
“I thought he put on a great at-bat the other day,” manager Terry Collins said. “So I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to play him tonight and see how he does.’ I really wanted to break up those left-handers (No. 5 Jay Bruce and No. 7 James Loney), because I thought it was going to be a tight game. I just didn’t want all those lefties in a row. And fortunately he came through with a huge night. … Everybody that’s ever had him said this guy can really hit. He always has. So we’re going to give him a shot.”
Rivera’s first major league homer allowed the Mets to rebound after Jeurys Familia suffered his fourth blown save in 52 chances a half-inning earlier. The Nationals plated two runs against Familia, thanks to a pair of infield singles and third baseman Jose Reyes‘ error.
Familia had been bidding to record his 49th save, which would have matched Jose Valverde (2011) and Francisco Cordero (2004) for the single-season record by a Dominican-born reliever.
“We were disappointed, frustrated,” Collins said. “We’ve got arguably the best closer in the game. And they hit four ground balls. Three of them didn’t get out of the infield and the game’s tied. He was frustrated about it. We certainly understand it. But we wouldn’t be sitting where we are without him. But I’ll tell you, we came off the field and still had some fight left.”
The Mets have won 17 of their past 23 games and maintain a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild-card spot.
“I was super-excited going around the bases,” said Rivera, who was ambushed by a whipped-cream pie to the face when he retreated postgame to the clubhouse. “It’s my first big-league home run.”
Until the late drama, the storyline had been Noah Syndergaard seemingly emerging as the clear choice to handle a winner-take-all wild-card game for the Mets. Syndergaard allowed one run in seven innings and departed with a 3-1 lead. He now has a 1.06 ERA in his past five starts, which leads a staff that has been utilizing rookies Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman in the absence of heralded pitchers.
Syndergaard threw a modest 99 pitches, a sign that the Mets are seriously weighing bringing him back on standard rest Sunday against the Minnesota Twins, rather than using Thursday’s team day off after this series to give him extra rest.
Using Syndergaard on Sunday would allow the Mets to delay selecting someone to take over the spot that had been occupied by Rafael Montero, who is being bounced from the rotation. That could stall long enough until Jacob deGrom (forearm) and/or Steven Matz (shoulder) is ready to return. Both have resumed throwing off a mound, so the Mets might have their full complement of starting pitching by the postseason and would be dangerous, should they get by a wild-card game and advance to a division series against the Chicago Cubs.
Syndergaard struck out 10 batters Tuesday, which gives him 205 for the season. He became the fifth pitcher in franchise history to reach the 200-strikeout plateau at age 24 or younger, joining Dwight Gooden (1984-86), Tom Seaver (1968-69), Jon Matlack (1973) and Sid Fernandez (1986).
“When you run probably your best pitcher out, you’ve got to win that game,” Collins said. “You’ve got to win this game tonight with Noah on the mound. He pitched great. They’re so good, you’ve got to take advantages of nights like this.”