ST. LOUIS — Sometimes, there are days during baseball’s grueling marathon when most things break just right. Routine groundouts turn into rally starters, freakish breaks breathe life into uprisings, and the most maligned player on the team morphs into Yoenis Cespedes.
In a season marked by bumps and bruises, by attrition and opportunities lost, the Mets have been graced with so few of these charmed games. But on Thursday, in a 10-6 victory over the Cardinals, the Mets collected enough breaks to mask their flaws.
Alejandro De Aza knocked in a career-high five runs, righthander Seth Lugo tossed five scoreless innings, and the Mets chugged along won for the fourth time in five games, stubbornly keeping their playoff hopes alive.
The Mets (64-63) cut their deficit to 3 1⁄2 games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot.
“We came into this series knowing we’ve got to pick up some ground and we picked up a game,” manager Terry Collins said. “That means a lot.”
Now, the Mets return to Citi Field for a 10-game homestand featuring NL East foes. On Friday, Bartolo Colon starts the opener of a three-game series against the Phillies (59-68). Neil Walker, the team’s hottest hitter, is expected to return. Then comes a four-game set against the Marlins (66-60), one of the teams the Mets must leapfrog if they are to reach the postseason.
“This and every game is important,” De Aza said. “We’re just out there trying to win as many games as we can. Thank God we got that one today. We’ve got to continue that.”
De Aza lugged a .189 average with him on Thursday. But in the fifth, his three-run homer blew the game open and chased Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. Earlier, De Aza laced a two-run single and a made a leaping catch against the wall.
“He knows his role,” Collins said. “He doesn’t have to like it but he accepts it and gets himself ready.”
Lugo, once a 34th-round afterthought, struck out five in five shutout innings for his first big-league win before leaving the game with an injury. But even that nightly brush with calamity did not pack its typical punch.
The righthander departed with what the team called a cramp in his right calf, a minor issue that shouldn’t affect his ability to make his next start.
In two starts in the majors, Lugo has allowed three runs in 11 2⁄3 innings. He has proven unafraid to attack hitters, a sign of growing confidence in his arsenal. For a rotation that may be reeling from late-season fatigue, the boost has been a well-time surprised for everyone but Lugo.
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” he said. “It’s been fun.”
The bullpen allowed six runs, an indication of the pitching woes that have slammed the Mets. But much of the damage came too late to matter.
The Mets’ 10-game road trip was dotted with potential booby traps and land mines, any of which might have been enough to effectively sink any chance of an 11th-hour run for the postseason. But during a stretch in which staff ace Jacob deGrom was shelled twice, Neil Walker departed for paternity leave, and the struggling Jay Bruce was sidelined with a leg issue, the Mets went 5-5 to keep their heads above water.
De Aza gave the Mets a 3-0 lead in the fourth, delivering a two-run single after a Jhonny Peralta error set the table for a big inning. The Cardinals offered up another break in the fifth, when the Mets pushed their lead to 7-0 thanks to an error and a lucky break at third base.
Cespedes appeared to be thrown out while trying to advance from first to third on a flare to leftfield. The ball beat him to the bag and third base umpire Mike Muchlinski balled his fist to call for an out.
Covering third, Wainwright placed his glove between the bag and Cespedes’ left foot. But when Wainwright retreated, the glove slipped off the pitcher’s hand. Cespedes was ruled safe, and replay determined Wainwright did not have control of the ball long enough. Shortstop Greg Garcia followed by booting a routine grounder for what would have been the third out.
That brought up De Aza. Aside from a one-week stretch at the end of July, he had been dreadful all season. But that didn’t stop him from delivering the biggest blow of the game. When his fifth homer of the season disappeared over the rightfield fence, De Aza unleashed a fist pump.
For the Mets, it was one of those nights.
“I was looking for that pitch and I got it,” De Aza. “But I didn’t think I hit it out. Once I got it, I got a little bit excited.”