Mets' gamble pays off as unlikely heroes step up

NEW YORK -- T.J. Rivera was never supposed to play a major role with the New York Mets, but he has. Michael Conforto was always supposed to be a key, but he wasn’t. Such things seem to carry no weight anymore as the Mets look to hold on to their wild-card spot through the final two weeks of the regular season.

Odd as their seasons have been, Rivera and Conforto were the difference-makers on Sunday as the Mets beat the Minnesota Twins, 3-2 before 28,926 at Citi Field, to complete a three-game sweep. Conforto came up with the bases loaded and none out in the first and laced an opposite-field single for a 2-0 lead. Rivera led off the third inning with a home run to left which gave the Mets a 3-1 lead.

These unlikely heroes were a good fit for a game where the Mets seemed to be making a lot of big gambles. Six regulars -- Curtis Granderson, Jose Reyes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jay Bruce, James Loney and Rene Rivera -- didn’t start after playing in Saturday night’s 12-inning marathon. End-game relievers Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia were not available. And manager Terry Collins was trying to get through a hole in the rotation by starting reliever Gabriel Ynoa and using the rest of his bullpen.

But it worked out, as have a lot of things for the Mets to get to this spot: 11 games over .500 for the first time this year and holding on to a wild-card spot despite close competition with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.

About the only thing that didn’t break right was Yoenis Cespedes coming out after six innings with a bout of nausea, but Collins expects him to play Monday.

Yes, the Mets have had plenty of big-name setbacks. Matt Harvey and David Wright were lost to season-ending surgeries long ago, and more recently, the same thing happened to Neil Walker. Lucas Duda missed four months. Jacob deGrom is missing the final month.

But for each seeming major setback there has been a tiny surprise to make up for it. Call-ups Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo stepped into the rotation and are a combined 6-3. Rivera is hitting .344 and playing all over the infield. Loney was fished from the discard pile and is batting .263. The list goes on and on.

“You’ve got to have guys (who), when they get the opportunity, they come through,” Collins said. “T.J. Rivera’s an example. Conforto in the first inning. Hey look, somebody else has got to help. When you are called upon and it’s your chance to get in the lineup, make the most of it. ... When things are going good, guys want to be a part of it, and the focus is a little bit better and the execution is a little bit better. That's what you saw today.”

Ynoa pitched 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball, struck out eight and was backed by a big cast of role players playing out of their roles. Erik Goeddel (2-1) got four outs. Josh Smoker got three. And Jerry Blevins got the final four outs, including a game-ending strikeout of dangerous Twins slugger Brian Dozier.

“This is our season in a nutshell,” Blevins said. “We take the first two games of the series, give the (regulars) a day off and the guys behind them fill in [and] do their thing. That’s been the New York Mets this year, all year.”

Of Rivera, the undrafted free agent now in the mix, Collins said, “I truly believe in overachievers. I think he is one of those guys. We’ve seen a lot of them. We can sit down and name a lot of guys who nobody expected to get here. ... They play the game the right way, come through when you need them.”

His rise may shape part of this offseason. The Mets envisioned Dilson Herrera as the second baseman for next season but had to deal him to get Bruce in a trade from Cincinnati. Walker was thriving in the final season of his contract, and the Mets were talking about offering an extension before he needed season-ending back surgery. Rivera might somehow end up an option.

After posting an .841 OPS in 56 games as a rookie and hitting a pair of World Series home runs, Conforto opened the season as a regular but sputtered at the plate in the second month and ended up spending much of the season in the minors. When he hit Kyle Gibson’s pitch the other way to left, he looked like the Conforto from a year ago.

“I think it was big for me to go the other way and not try to do too much in that situation, kind of slow the game down a little bit and take what is given to me," he said. “It was big for me, and I am growing a bit.”

Right now, however, the back stories don’t seem to matter with the Mets. Rivera’s star turn? Conforto’s redemption? Collins’ ingenuity? None overshadow the moment the Mets are looking at.

“We’re in a position to play playoff baseball, and, really, that’s all that matters now,” Conforto said. “We’re really looking forward to finishing the season strong and playing in the playoffs.”