It happened in the blink of an eye, but make no mistake, 27-year-old T.J. Rivera’s tenth-inning home run on an 0-2 curveball from Mark Melancon, which gave the Mets a crucial 4-3 victory, was years in the making. Stay back on the curve, drop the right elbow to the hip, explode the hips outwards, get the bat head out in front and let it do the walking. That was a professional hitter’s swing against a dominant closer. And it was a thing of beauty.
That erased the pain and shame of the ninth inning where the Mets blew a 3-1 lead, along with all its associated mind-eating questions: Why isn’t Asdrubal Cabrera (2-for-5, 2 doubles, run) playing third base and Jose Reyes playing shortstop? Can the official scorer charge James Loney’s offseason conditioning program an error for refusing to stretch on Reyes’s throwing error, otherwise known as a fairly common play for a first baseman to make? Can we have a designated fielder out there for Jeurys Familia? Will we ever find a position for T.J. Rivera?
For now, he’s in the position known as ‘hero’. Take another look at this and you may feel you’re looking at the right-handed answer to Daniel Murphy:
The rookie and 2016 PCL batting champion finished the night with the big club with a three hit and three RBI performance worth remembering. He singled twice, the first of which brought home the Mets’ first run in the third—the team’s only hit with runners in scoring position in eight tries on the night. He also whacked a sacrifice fly in the fifth to stake the Mets to a 3-1 lead, which brought down his On Base Percentage (.319) down a tick further from his batting average (.333) in a rare anomaly that has persisted for his first 47 plate appearances since he has two sac flies and has yet to take a walk.
Rivera’s heroics salvaged a game the Mets needed to win since Noah Syndergaard started this one on the hill and was dealing. Thor struck out ten, walked only one and allowed four hits and a run through seven innings and 99 pitches in an outing where he was both dominating and efficient. Here’s a quick clip of him missing Nats bats:
As the vid shows, his slider featured prominently tonight, as he used it 26 times—one short of its highest usage of the season—to earn 21 strikes. His “slide-piece” ranged from 91.8 to 95.2 MPH on the evening according to Brooks Baseball, and was only put into play three times, with only a single hit against it.
That should have been good enough for a win and it seemed to be cruising that way when Familia came on with a 3-1 lead in the ninth. That’s when everyone’s favorite achilles heel of the Mets revealed itself once again: catching and/or throwing the baseball, otherwise known as half the game (Take note for the future, Sandy Alderson). Murphy hit a ball up the middle that Rivera made a nice stab of but isn’t enough of a second baseman to complete the play. Bryce Harper hit a dribbler to Reyes that he gunned slightly wide of first into the runner but Loney, who should have been able to both catch the ball and stay on the bag—or at least catch the ball and try a swipe tag—did none of the above, and the ball sailed into the stands to put the Nats in business at second and third and nobody out. Those still married to the idea of Loney’s utility should consider sending him a gift certificate for a pilates class.
Anthony Rendon then hit a grounder to Reyes’ left that he probably should have been able to stop but instead went into left field to score Murphy. Wilson Ramos followed with a comebacker that Familia leaped for—only to have it clang off the heel of his glove. T.J. Rivera tried to barehand it behind the mound with a good shot at cutting down a heretofore hesitant Harper at the plate, but flubbed it, thusly intensifying that ugly feeling that had been building in your stomach.
For those of you scoring at home, that was three balls that didn’t leave the infield and one that shouldn’t have. Result: tie game, 3-3.
But hey, while this is the type of game you expect the Mets to lose in the end— especially after a foul pop by Clint Robinson fell between Reyes and Yoenis Cespedes when either should have caught it—fortune once again smiled again on New York’s native son. Robinson lined a ball at Rivera, who snagged it just before it hit the ground and made a backhand double-play-style feed to Cabrera, which failed to double off Rendon at second but confused pinch-runner Wilmer Difo enough to entice him to break toward second. This treated us to the quasi-funny / relieving ambiguous moment where Cabrera’s throw to first beat both Difo and a sprinting Robinson to first. Somebody was out, some kind of double play was definitely completed, and the Mets lived for another inning. But only one more.
Rivera’s offensive performance and the continuing questionable play of Loney suddenly puts into mind a four-man carousel circling between first and second base down the stretch, with Rivera, Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Wilmer Flores bobbing up and down. If the Mets were looking to optimize their lineup, they would maybe swap Reyes and Cabrera on the other side of the diamond (never going to happen, really), and of course Michael Conforto would at least bring above-average defense if subbed in for Jay Bruce and at least couldn’t hit any worse.
In addition to the race for at-bats in those positions, we have ourselves a barn-burner of a wild card race. The Giants lost to the Padres, bringing the Mets within a half-game of home field advantage in a play-in game, while the Cardinals kept pace with a win over the Cubs. Stay tuned, true believers!
SB Nation GameThreads
Win Probability Added
Big winners: T.J. Rivera, +51.3% WPA; Noah Syndergaard, +30.5% WPA; Curtis Granderson, +15.5% WPA
Big losers: Jeurys Famila, -41.4% WPA; Jay Bruce, -14.8% WPA; Jose Reyes, -12.9% WPA
Teh aw3s0mest play: T.J. Rivera’s go-ahead homer in the tenth, +38.5% WPA
Teh sux0rest play: Bryce Harper reaches on a two-base Jose Reyes throwing error with one on and one out in the ninth, -25.7% WPA
Total pitcher WPA: +16.7% WPA
Total batter WPA: +33.3% WPA
GWRBI!: T.J. Rivera