Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

CINCINNATI - As Bill Murray once chanted in the 1979 summer camp movie "Meatballs,'' when it comes to the Mets and winning games down the stretch, "It just doesn't matter.''

Say it with him. Do a little dance around the campfire if you like.

"It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!''

StoryMets' bats come alive, win shaves magic number to 3

It doesn't matter what the Mets do, whether they win every game the rest of the regular season or lose every game.

Thanks to the Washington Nationals, who absolutely refuse to make a run in the NL East, the Mets can continue to play games that feel like spring training while getting ready for their first postseason berth since 2006.

On Thursday night, that meant trying to stretch out Steven Matz perhaps two more innings than his performance and stuff indicated in a 6-4 win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

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With the victory and the Nationals' afternoon loss to the Orioles, the Mets' magic number dropped to three. It will be perfectly fitting for this unconventional September if the Mets clinch Saturday. That's when Matt Harvey is expected to start -- and pitch perhaps three or four innings.

It's a strange way to run a pennant race. But because of Washington's ineptitude, it just doesn't matter.

The Mets have been powering down Harvey and their other young starters, but with Matz, they are doing the opposite. The Long Island lefty is in full early-season, building-arm-strength mode after missing two months with a partially torn lat muscle.

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Matz needs innings. So what if he gave up the tying run in a sixth inning he usually would have been watching from the clubhouse? So what if he nearly had given up a fall-behind three-run homer the inning before?

"I don't mind having him throw some pitches,'' Terry Collins said of Matz, who threw 93 in 52/3 innings and allowed three runs and 10 hits. "I think it all helps him build his arm strength back up.''

The rookie threw a ton of pitches early -- 44 in the first two innings -- but still had eight strikeouts and a 3-1 lead after four.

Matz gave up three singles in the fifth as the Reds closed to within 3-2 before Todd Frazier hit a drive to left that Michael Conforto caught at the wall to end the inning. Another few feet and it would have been Frazier's 36th home run of the season.

In a playoff game, there's no way a tiring Matz would have faced a righthanded slugger in that situation. And he probably wouldn't have started the sixth at 85 pitches.

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Facing the bottom of the Reds' lineup, Matz gave up a one-out double to Eugenio Suarez. One out later, he allowed a tying single to pinch hitter Adam Duvall that ate up David Wright at third base. Matz was done. But one of the night's missions was accomplished.

The Mets can talk all they want about not looking too far ahead, about not having clinched anything yet. That would be relevant only if they had a team pursuing them with gusto.

"What I try to do is make sure that we steer everybody in the right direction,'' Collins said. "At certain times, all of a sudden someone comes up with a question about, 'Hey, what are we going to do with playoff tickets?' Who [cares] what we're doing with playoff tickets? Let's go play.''

Nice thought, but the reality is the Mets can coast to the finish line and mess around with their pitchers and still get to spray each other with champagne soon.

Hopefully, the Mets will spring for the good kind. At least that matters.