Rookie T.J. Rivera hit his first major league home run in the 10th inning to lead the Mets to a dramatic 4-3 victory in the nation’s capital on Tuesday night.
After Washington scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score at 3-all, Rivera lined All-Star closer Mark Melancon’s 0-2 cutter into the left field seats to put New York back on top.
“I got to two strikes so I had to shorten up a bit, and I was able to put a barrel on a decent pitch and was able to drive it,” Rivera said.
Making his first start in three weeks in place of an ailing Wilmer Flores (neck soreness), the 27-year-old Rivera finished the night 3-for-4 with 3 RBIs and also made some acrobatic plays at second base.
“There are opportunities that come along and you’ve got to make the most of them,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “T.J. did tonight, for sure.”
Following an ugly loss in the series opener on Monday, New York remained a half game ahead of St. Louis for the second NL Wild Card with the win – although, with the Giants falling 6-4 to the Padres, the Mets sit just half a game behind the first spot again.
Rivera, who signed as an undrafted free agent by New York in 2011, played in almost six full minor league seasons before finally making his Mets debut last month. Throughout his improbable rise to the majors, the Bronx native has kept the same approach.
“I try to play my game and put the barrel on the ball consistently,” Rivera said. “You want to come here, especially when you haven’t been around the team much throughout the season, you want to be able to help contribute so it’s a great feeling.”
Several family members back in his Throgs Neck neighborhood, just a 15-minute drive from Citi Field, gathered on Tuesday night to watch the SNY broadcast.
“We were proud of the strong game he was already having, but when he hit his very first home run, it was an emotional and proud moment,” Rivera’s mother Nilsa said. “That home run was for all the coaches, players, friends and his family in the Bronx. T.J. is an inspiration to us all.”
“I knew it was gone the moment he connected with that ball,” said T.J.’s father Thomas, a lifelong Mets fan.
Attempting to hold a two-run lead against the heart of the Nationals’ order, Jeurys Familia suffered just his fourth blown save in 52 opportunities this year.
Daniel Murphy barely beat out an infield single after Rivera made a nifty diving play to his right. Bryce Harper followed with a routine grounder to Jose Reyes at third, whose wild throw across the diamond ended up in the stands behind the first base bag. Anthony Rendon singled to left on a hanging slider, allowing Murphy to score and cutting the lead to 3-2.
Wilson Ramos hit a slow grounder past Familia for another infield hit, sending Harper home and tying the score at three. An exasperated Familia was able to escape further damage by coercing a line out from Ryan Zimmerman and a double play off the bat of pinch-hitter Clint Robinson.
The Mets almost wasted a strong outing from starter Noah Syndergaard, who allowed one run on four hits and one walk over seven innings.
The long-haired fireballer stifled the Nationals’ high-octane offense with a dizzying array of sharp, well-placed breaking balls, striking out 10 in convincing fashion. Syndergaard lowered his ERA to 2.43, second in the NL to Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks.
“My whole goal is just to make sure they’re uncomfortable up in the box,” Syndergaard said.
The 24-year-old, who at one point fanned four straight, became the fifth Mets pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts at his age or younger. Syndergaard also became the second-fastest player in franchise history to reach the milestone (171.1 IP), behind Dwight Gooden who reached 200 punchouts in 165.2 innings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s just an individual accolade to me,” Syndergaard said. “It’s cool. I just try not to focus on the result, more on the process.”
Washington got on the board first, courtesy of a free pass and a free bag. Harper led off the second with a walk and promptly stole second base, despite not getting a good jump. It was the 46th steal against Syndergaard this season, by far the most against any pitcher in the majors. After Rendon struck out swinging, Ramos doubled home Harper to give the Nationals their only lead of the night.
Asdrubal Cabrera started the following frame with his second double of the game against Washington starter A.J. Cole, who proceeded to strike out the next two Mets batters. With Jay Bruce at the plate, the slow-footed Cabrera stole third uncontested for the second time in three innings; doubling his season total to four. Bruce then walked on a full count, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Mike Maddux. The pep talk failed as Rivera singled to left, scoring Cabrera and tying the game at one.
Yoenis Cespedes lined a single to left against Cole to lead off the fifth. Twelve years to the date of his big league debut, 35-year-old Curtis Granderson roped a 3-0 fastball just under the glove of Zimmerman at first and into the right field corner for a triple; snapping both an 0-for-13 streak and a tie game. After Bruce flied out to shallow left, Rivera plated Granderson with a sacrifice fly to give New York a 3-1 advantage.
Reliever Fernando Salas allowed the potential tying run to reach in the bottom of the tenth, as Jayson Werth blooped a two-out single to left. Jerry Blevins came on to face Murphy, getting him to chase a curveball in the dirt and locking down his first save since 2012.
“If there was one guy I didn’t want up in that spot, it was Dan Murphy,” Collins said.
Murphy, leading the chase for the National League batting crown, maintained his .347 average with a 2-for-5 performance. He has at least one hit in all 18 games against his former club, the longest ever single-season streak against the Mets; according to Elias.
Mets right-hander Robert Gsellman (2-1, 3.92 ERA, 3.60 FIP, .301 TAv) takes on fellow righty Tanner Roark (14-8, 2.85 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 2.4 WARP) in the rubber match Wednesday afternoon, the final regular season meeting this year between the two NL East rivals.
Photo credit: Terry Gilligan – USA Today Sports