FLUSHING, N.Y. — When you’re in the thick of a playoff race, playing against the worst team in Major League Baseball should be a relatively easy task and a welcome sight on the schedule. However, for the injury-depleted New York Mets, nothing is stress-free these days.
And yet New York, despite suffering through key, mounting losses to its roster and other adversities, continues to find ways to bounce back and take more of a hold on securing a National League wild-card playoff spot.
The Mets (79-69) might have been easily disheartened and deflated after once-promising news about ace starting pitcher Jacob deGrom turned sour only about three hours before the first pitch of New York’s scheduled start against the MLB-worst Minnesota Twins (55-94) on Saturday night.
Thousands of fans who attended the game received one of the Mets’ most and clever fun promotions of all-time, scoring a very amusing, free team cap with a realistic-looking replica of deGrom’s trademark long, curly hair attached to the back of the cap.
But the joke was ultimately on New York, as deGrom was due to make his first start since September 1 on Sunday until reports surfaced late Saturday afternoon that he would instead need elbow surgery and will likely be out for the remainder of the season.
Still, as they’ve done all season — after losing their longtime team captain and starting third baseman (David Wright) and starting ace pitcher Matt Harvey, each for most of the season, along with starting first baseman Lucas Duda (who although he was re-activated on Saturday, has only played in 39 games) for the majority of the year, plus several other main losses for various lengths of time — the Mets once again endured.
Forced to send a 26-year-old rookie starting pitcher Seth Lugo (who has performed surprisingly well, with a 4-2 record, and a 2.35 ERA) back to the mound, New York, with the help seven relievers, was able to hold largely hold Minnesota’s offense in check. But the Mets’ somewhat patchwork fix for an injury-ravaged lineup was unable to muster much itself for a while, particularly against starter Ervin Santana, who was perfect over the first three innings before leaving after seven shutout innings, during which he limited New York to the same number of base runners (on just four hits, two walks and a hit batter) while striking out nine.
Down, 1-0, after a Twins homer run in the fourth inning (the lone run Lugo allowed over five innings) the Mets finally broke through against Minnesota’s bullpen, to tie the game, 1-1, on an RBI single by left fielder Yoenis Cespedes in the bottom of the eighth inning. But they wasted a few chances thereafter and saw another Twins homer put Minnesota back on top, 2-1, in the 11th inning.
Things seemed bleak for New York to either gain or hold ground on the Mets’ two main wild-card competitors — the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals — which were simultaneously playing the third game of a four-game series in San Francisco.
That’s when 35-year-old veteran right fielder Curtis Granderson put New York — and himself — in the record books and dramatically turned his team’s fortunes on a pair of big swings in a way that personified the Mets’ ability to overcome one hardship after another this season.
Leading off the bottom of the 11th, Granderson homered to left field to tie the game again, 2-2. One inning later, with two outs and no one on base, he made the Twins’ decision to remove right-handed reliever Michael Tonkin and play the percentages, going lefty-versus-lefty — with Ryan O’Rourke — backfire.
Granderson sent O’Rourke’s sixth pitch down the right field line and over the wall for New York’s franchise-best 201st home run of the year, to give the Mets a 3-2 walk-off win and their second straight victory in as many games to start a crucial 10-game homestand, New York’s final one of the season.
In lifting the Mets to victory, Granderson became the first player in team history to finish a game with game-tying and walk-off homers in extra innings.
While Granderson has often struggled (with a career-low .221 batting average and a .316 on-base percentage – the second-worst of his career), his 28 home runs trails only Cespedes’ 30 on the team. And although he only has 51 RBI to show for those homers, that number accounts for third-most on the club.
So just like New York, Granderson’s year has often been tough, yet good enough, so far.
“He’s a pro,” manager Terry Collins said of Granderson. “If we go back and measure what his season was like, there’s all sorts of statistics we could use, there’s all sorts of gauges… you look at him now, he’s got  homers. He doesn’t have a lot of RBIs, [and] there’s a lot of reasons for it, but he’s the guy you just turn to. You just feel like he’s gonna do some damage when he’s up to home plate, the way he’s been doing it.”
The fact that the hero on Saturday night was Granderson — who has played in a team-high 137 of the Mets’ 148 games this season, as one of his teammates after another has gone to the disabled list — was fitting.
“Yeah, it’s very appropriate,” Collins said, laughing at the thought, before commenting further on Granderson’s steadiness and resurgence after dropping into the cleanup spot of late, months after starting the season as New York’s leadoff hitter.
“He never gets down,” Collins continued. “He’s the same guy every day. He’s dangerous… this is our guy. What he did last year certainly contributed so much to getting us to where we got to (the World Series) at the end of the year.
“I thought it was important to stick with him [this year], and I also thought that by putting him in the fourth hole, maybe things would change for him a little bit, and they certainly have. He’s turned it around since he’s been hitting fourth.”
Granderson’s ability particularly in the clutch is far from the only reason the Mets have been able to fight through a myriad of obstacles and keep their playoff hopes in very good shape, but it’s certainly been a major contributing factor in that regard.
On August 20, New York was just 60-62, with a mere seven-percent chance of reaching the postseason. But as Granderson has played better, while several other reinforcements like Lugo have stepped in and performed well, the Mets have since gone 19-7 and have seen their probability of making the playoffs soar to a current 86.5 percent.
They also accomplished two other things they were unable to do all season.
Their win over the Twins marked the first time in 62 tries during 2016 that New York won when trailing after eight innings, and for the first time in eight attempts this year, the Mets finally moved to double digits over the .500 mark.
Coupled with St. Louis’ two-run, ninth inning rally to win 3-2, in San Francisco on Saturday night, New York tied the Giants (79-69) for the NL’s first wild-card spot (with a head-to-head tiebreaker in the Mets’ favor), while maintaining a two-game edge over the Cardinals (77-71) for the second wild-card position, with 14 regular season games left for all three clubs.
“Our resiliency is great,” Collins said. “Our guys played hard. [It was] a big game, especially with the news earlier about Jake. They came out tonight knowing they needed to win this game, [and] they did it.
“The first thought, when the guys came [back] in [the dugout in the middle of the 11th], I heard guys [saying] at the end of the bench, ‘Hey, let’s get two [runs].’ Let’s go out and score two, and win this thing.’ There was still a lot of energy on the bench and we had the middle of the lineup [coming] up, and we still felt good about things.”
That’s a feeling that’s sure to last as long as the Mets keep recovering no matter what type of hurdle befalls them.