ST. LOUIS — In the seven weeks since they had last won three consecutive games, the Mets endured so many nights just like this.
Starter Jonathon Niese faced four batters before his knee gave out, blowing a three-run lead in the process. Suddenly, their fate was placed in the hands of Robert Gsellman, the fresh-from-Vegas righthander in his big-league debut. Just a week ago, the cave-in would have been inevitable.
But the Mets leaned upon their resolve Tuesday night, quickly regaining the lead before holding off the Cardinals, 7-4, to shave their deficit in the wild-card race to 3 1/2 games.
“Instead of ‘what just happened’ it’s ‘hey, look, we’re still leading this thing,” manager Terry Collins said. “We had some big hits tonight by a lot of guys, which is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
Wilmer Flores hit a three-run homer in the first before the banged-up Niese gave it all back. But in the second, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Reyes jump-started a two-run rally and the Mets never looked back.
“That was big,” said Reyes, who extended his torrid hot streak by finishing 3-for-4. “Anytime you take a lead in the first inning, and the other club ties the game right there, sometimes you put your head down. We don’t do that.”
What they did was find a way to absorb 8 1/3 innings in Niese’s absence and knock off the Cardinals, who had won six of seven while tightening their lock on the wild card.
Gsellman tossed 3 2⁄3 scoreless innings to pick up the victory in his major-league debut, which came without notice.
“It happened pretty fast but I slowed myself down by taking a couple of breaths,” said Gsellman, a starter throughout his time in the minors. “That helped out a lot. I was a little nervous.”
In addition to Flores’ shot, Justin Ruggiano added a solo homer in the fourth.
Cabrera knocked in a run, scored a run, then saved a run with the first of two nifty plays at shortstop. Yoenis Cespedes made a leaping grab at the leftfield fence to take away a double, at least.
Jim Henderson, fresh off the DL and pitching in the big leagues for the first time since June 18, helped turn back a rally. He entered in the seventh with one down, one on, and the tying run at the plate.
But after allowing a single to Yadier Molina, Henderson retired the next two, freezing Jedd Gyorko with a 93-mph fastball on the outer edge to end the threat.
Setup man Addison Reed allowed a pair of hits in the eighth but emerged unscathed. And with a bit of extra breathing room, thanks to James Loney’s RBI single in the ninth, Jeurys Familia nailed down his 42nd save.
“That was a team win,” Collins said, after the Mets improved to 63-62.
For the first time since reeling off five in a row from June 30 to July 4, the Mets have won three straight, a modest accomplishment that looms large as the season enters the homestretch. Only 37 games remain for the defending National League champions to defy the odds and sneak into the postseason through the side door.
Niese did not help. And for his troubles, the Mets after the game sent him to the disabled list, with reliever Erik Goeddel summoned from Triple-A Las Vegas to take his place.
Niese’s knee issue was no surprise. Before his trade from the Pirates, his knee had accumulated enough fluid that it required draining. He kept pitching, even through a mediocre return to the starting rotation last week.
Gifted a 3-0 lead, Niese found himself under duress from the jump. Tommy Pham walked, Stephen Piscotty lined out and Matt Carpenter walked ahead of Brandon Moss, who ripped an RBI single to right.
Through four batters, Niese looked uncomfortable. He later admitted to feeling a pop. Trainer Ray Ramirez spotted this, jogged to the mound after the hit by Moss, and exited the field with Niese at his side.
In came Gsellman on zero notice. His first big-league pitch wound up in the gap in right-center off the bat of Molina, good enough to knock in another run. Molina scored the tying run on Jhonny Peralta’s groundout. Niese was charged with all three runs.
But instead of wallowing, the Mets answered in the second and Gsellman found his rhythm.
“For a young pitcher to come in like that, you never know what to expect,” Reyes said. “He came in, threw strikes, and kept us in the game. It was good.”