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Mets stay in wild-card hunt with character win after Jon Niese exits

ST. LOUIS -- The New York Mets sent a starting pitcher with a gimpy left knee to the mound on Tuesday in the opener of a must-win series.

Sure enough, Jonathon Niese ended up walking off with an escort from trainer Ray Ramirez after he retired only one of the game's opening four batters and experienced pain in his knee.

Still, the Mets managed to earn a potentially season-defining 7-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, and they remain relevant in the National League wild-card race.

Rookies Robert Gsellman and Josh Smoker combined to log 5 2/3 relief innings as the Mets extended their winning streak to three games for the first time in seven weeks. Gsellman was credited with the win in his major league debut, and the Mets moved within 3 1/2 games of St. Louis for the second wild-card spot.

Gsellman had been forewarned that Niese might need to depart early.

“It was my first time ever coming out of the bullpen, so it felt kind of awkward,” Gsellman said. “You still have to take the mound the same way as when you’re starting. … They told me to be ready when I got here. I just had to take a couple of deep breaths and realize where I was.”

After Wilmer Flores belted a three-run homer in the first and Niese gave it away in the bottom half, Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera had consecutive run-scoring hits with two outs in the second to restore the lead. Playing their righty-oriented lineup against southpaw Jaime Garcia, the Mets then opened a 6-2 cushion in the fourth, when Justin Ruggiano homered.

With Tuesday's win, the Mets (63-62) moved above .500 for the first time in a week.

This three-game series had the makings of the Mets' Waterloo, with Niese and Seth Lugo scheduled to start two of the games, thanks to Steven Matz's landing on the DL because of a shoulder strain. Yet the Mets now send Jacob deGrom to the mound Wednesday with a chance to secure a series win.

DeGrom is coming off a five-inning outing in which he allowed career highs of eight runs and 13 hits at San Francisco. He had posted a 1.49 ERA in his previous nine starts.

Manager Terry Collins will face far less scrutiny now that the Mets have survived Tuesday's game with a win. The decision to start Niese in the all-important game nonetheless could be questioned on multiple fronts.

Collins could have made a determination that Niese was not pitching well enough to warrant the start. In that scenario, Collins could have used Monday's day off to skip the southpaw -- who entered the game with a combined 5.30 ERA between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Mets this season -- and go right to deGrom in the opener. Or the manger could have made the determination based on Niese's knee that he was not the right choice to start and opted for Gsellman or someone else.

Yet Niese went to the mound with a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first. He proceeded to walk leadoff batter Tommy Pham and No. 3 hitter Matt Carpenter and surrender an RBI single to Brandon Moss. Then he departed with an escort from Ramirez. Niese will be placed on the disabled list.

It tied the shortest outing of Niese's career. He recorded only one out on July 4, 2014, at Texas, when he was struck in his lower back by a line drive.

Gsellman allowed both inherited runners to score in his MLB debut but was not charged with any runs in 3 2/3 innings.

“After the second hitter, I saw him kind of reach down to his left knee,” Collins said about Niese. “And then, the next guy, I saw him walk off the mound. I told [pitching coach] Dan [Warthen], ‘Hey, I think he’s limping.’ The next hitter, it was definite. And that’s when we got Gsellman up. We had to go out, and he said it’s killing him, so we took him out.”

In the rotation spot initially occupied by Matt Harvey, the Mets have tried Logan Verrett and Niese this season. The next time the turn comes up, this Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field, Gsellman should have dibs, according to Collins.

Can the Mets actually make noise in the wild-card race with Lugo and Gsellman in the rotation -- at least short-term in one of those cases, assuming Matz returns from the DL next week?

That's to be determined. Tuesday's result, at least, made the question relevant.