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Figueroa delivers grit Mets need

Flushing, NY - Wednesday, August 5, 2009. N.Y.

Flushing, NY - Wednesday, August 5, 2009. N.Y. Mets vs. St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field.. Nelson Figueroa strokes a 2 RBI triple in the 2nd inning. Brian Schneider and Angel Berroa scored. Photo by David Pokress Photo Credit: David Pokress/David Pokress

Nelson Figueroa entered the game Wednesday exactly the way he had left on Monday: there were two outs in the top of the second, the Mets were in crisis and the air was filled with boos. Otherwise, it was completely different.

This time, he was the emergency reliever and not the starter, the winner and not the loser. This time, he left the reminder that the Mets could use a lot more of what he has. The guy isn't the greatest talent in the world, but he is tough, which is basically just the opposite of what the Mets have been the past few years.

If the club does get anything out of this scarred season - Howie Rose said on the radio broadcast Wednesday that the team photo ought to be an MRI - it should be that it needs to have more Figueroa in it.

The Mets need the fortitude that doesn't crumble when things go bad. They need the outlook that says, "I know I was horrendous last time, but this is this time."

His teammates were impressed Wednesday. "He's a veteran pitcher, he has good stuff," Bobby Parnell said after he worked the final three innings. "That's the game of baseball. That's why you play every day. If you have a bad one, you come out the next day and have a good one. He did a great job, going out there, attacking hitters and he turned it around for us."

Figueroa was lucky to still be a Met Wednesday, considering how miserably he had failed them on Monday, when their bullpen was tired and they needed some innings: six runs, 10 hits, three homers and a quick hook.

A start like that can get a marginal veteran released. But the Mets are as thin as water on a rock right now, so they held onto Figueroa. They really needed him Wednesday against the Cardinals when Jonathon Niese went down as if he were struck by lightning when he tested his shaky right leg with a warm-up toss. Figueroa took the catcalls in stride and pitched 41/3 terrific scoreless innings in a 9-0 rout. He was the calm that countered the eerie sight of Niese sprawled on the mound.

"I just grabbed my glove and started stretching," Figueroa said, recalling the scene in the bullpen. Between innings, he checked in on his fellow pitcher. "I came in here and told him I'd pray for him."

Then Figueroa went out and laced a two-run triple to left-centerfield that might have been an inside-the-park home run had he really tried to push it. "I'll be perfectly happy with a triple," he said.

Not much is perfect in baseball, he can tell you. The Coney Island kid wasn't recruited by Division I colleges, but made his way to pro ball through Division III Brandeis. His career has looked all but over many times since 1995, except he wouldn't let it be.

"That's the name of our game," Figueroa said. "The best hitters in the game are going to make out seven out of 10 times. If you can deal with defeat, you know you've got a chance for success.

"I was always the smallest kid on the team, I didn't throw the hardest, I wasn't the fastest. But you can't measure heart and you can't teach hustle," he said. "Those things, I take great pride in. And here I am at 35, still living a boy's dream."

He didn't stop dreaming when he missed all of 2005 because of shoulder surgery. "Once you're out of organized baseball, getting back in is so tough. I was fortunate to be in the Atlantic League," he said, grateful to have his livelihood revived by the Ducks in 2006. Since then, he has bounced around to Chihuahua in the Mexican League, to Taiwan and New Orleans, Buffalo and his hometown Mets. He never let a bad start or a bad break stop him.

Imagine how the Mets' past two Septembers would have looked if they had had that kind of grit in a few of their regulars, or even one.

Maybe you can't measure heart, but the Mets sure had better try to find some.

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