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Mets lose no ground despite rubber-game loss to Nats

WASHINGTON -- Well, at least the New York Mets did not lose any ground in the wild-card race.

Fernando Salas surrendered an seventh-inning homer to Wilson Ramos and the Washington Nationals beat the Mets 1-0 in Wednesday's rubber game. It was the first run Salas had allowed in seven appearances since being acquired from the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 31 for minor-league right-hander Erik Manoah.

The Mets went 7-12 against the first-place Nationals this season and depart D.C. trailing by 10 games in the division. Still, the Mets remain well-positioned in the wild-card race.

The St. Louis Cardinals continued to sputter Wednesday with a 7-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs. And the San Francisco Giants again fell to the San Diego Padres.

So the Mets (77-69) enter a day off on Thursday trailing San Francisco by a half-game and leading St. Louis by a half-game. Two of those teams are likely to earn the wild-card entries.

And with the Giants and Cardinals now poised to face each other for four games in San Francisco, while the Mets entertain the lowly Minnesota Twins this weekend, the Mets are in tremendous shape with 16 games remaining.

The Mets do not face another team with a winning record, unless the Miami Marlins can climb back over .500.

"We're still right where we are," manager Terry Collins. "We're going home in the wild-card hunt. Our fans should be excited. It's the last homestand. ... We caught up a lot in the last couple of weeks. We've got ourselves right where we need to be. Yeah, today's tough when the other two teams lose. But they're saying the same thing."

There were positives despite Wednesday's loss. Rookie Robert Gsellman contributed 5⅔ scoreless innings to shave his ERA to 3.08. And when he departed with a runner on second base and two outs in the sixth, Josh Smoker entered and followed an intentional walk to Daniel Murphy by striking out Bryce Harper looking.

Also, catcher Rene Rivera showed he warranted starting a second straight game over struggling Travis d'Arnaud. Rivera twice completed strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double plays with lasers to second base. Rivera has thrown out one-third of would-be base stealers (18-of-54) -- and that's with the drag of being assigned catching Noah Syndergaard, who has difficulty holding runners. D'Arnaud, by contrast, has thrown out only 22 percent (16-of-72).

One negative that remained an issue Wednesday: Jay Bruce continues to underwhelm since being acquired from the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 1 for second baseman Dilson Herrera and left-hander Max Wotell. Bruce took a called third strike from Tanner Roark with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning. The Mets failed to score in that frame when T.J. Rivera followed by flying out in foul territory down the right-field line.

"I swung at two borderline pitches early. And then he threw a front-door two-seamer to strike me out," Bruce said. "Hindsight, I probably should have tried to take at least the first pitch. But they were all borderline. I feel like he made good pitches. I didn't really have a pitch to handle."

Bruce's struggles would appear to warrant consideration of more frequently using Michael Conforto, who has languished on the bench since returning from Triple-A Las Vegas when rosters expanded. However, Collins indicated he would need to have confidence in an alternative to Bruce in order to justify sitting him -- a seeming slight at Conforto, who has not started since Sept. 5.

"Who do we've got that's going really good that we can stick in there?" Collins rhetorically asked. "When you take [Bruce] out, you better have somebody you're confident can get the job done."

Collins met with Bruce, and Bruce noted that he played more frequently with Cincinnati than with the Mets. So it appears the Mets will let Bruce try to hit his way out of a six-week funk since arriving. Bruce is hitting .192 (25-for-130) with four homers and 11 RBIs in 36 games.

"I've talked to him at length about it," Collins said. "And one of the things he's done through his entire career is play through things. He's been an everyday guy. He's never been a guy who sits very much. So he has the ability to fight through it. We talked about how he's probably missed more playing time here than anywhere. I said, 'Look, we're going to run you in there this week and see if we can get you started.'"

Said Bruce: "This is the ninth year that I've been an everyday player. My whole career my goal going into the year is to play 162 games. It's never happened, but I always get pretty close when healthy. ... He asked me, and I just told him I didn't need any more time off -- I didn't need a break here or there or whatever. I'm confident in my ability to get out of funks and just keep going forward. It's part of the game. But I also told him I completely understand, that he has to put together a lineup that he feels gives us the best chance to win. But I also feel like I'm one of the best nine options as well."

Another issue that became even more blatantly obvious Wednesday: Gsellman does not swing the bat, which also was the case at Las Vegas before his promotion. Granted, Gsellman is here for his pitching arm. But he has at least a partial tear of the labrum in his non-pitching shoulder, and word undoubtedly is now out around baseball that the only time the bat will leave Gsellman's shoulder is for a bunt attempt. The Nats intentionally walked No. 8 hitter Rene Rivera in the fourth inning with T.J. Rivera at second base and two outs to get to Gsellman, who struck out on a bunt attempt. Gsellman will be re-evaluated after the season to determine if surgery is necessary.

Also on the injury front, Wilmer Flores will be examined by team doctors on Thursday morning in New York. Although initially portrayed as a neck issue, it turns out the lingering effect of Flores' plate collision on Saturday with A.J. Pierzynski in Atlanta is a right wrist injury. Flores had an X-ray of the wrist at Turner Field that showed no fracture, but he remain unable to swing a bat, so he will be examined at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the team's day off.

"I guess I landed on it or something," Flores said. "I can't swing the bat."