WASHINGTON — Nobody wanted him. This is how T.J. Rivera’s unlikely climb began. He was an undrafted free agent, hoping that some team, any team, might give him a shot.
Then came an opening with the Mets’ rookie ball team in Kingsport, Tennessee. Then a phone call, then another, and then a body to fill the void. That was Rivera, who, five years later, has parlayed his break into a spot in the major leagues.
Yet, he would not betray himself. After all this time, he could not bring himself to gloat, not even on a wild night during a pennant race when he saved the Mets, nearly all by himself.
“I was trying to keep my cool,” Rivera said Tuesday night shortly after his solo shot in the 10th inning lifted the Mets to a 4-3 victory over the Nationals.
The Mets had wasted one of Noah Syndergaard’s best starts of the season, then squandered a 3-1 lead in the ninth. That’s when closer Jeurys Familia was undone by a handful of grounders and a throwing error by third baseman Jose Reyes, which the Nationals cobbled into a game-tying rally.
In the 10th, the Mets were still reeling with the possibility of a bitter loss, one they could not afford as they fight to hold off the Cardinals for the second wild card.
“Somebody has got to surprise you, somebody you don’t expect has to come through,” manager Terry Collins said after the Mets maintained a half-game edge over St. Louis. “And tonight it was T.J.”
Syndergaard struck out 10, his first double-digit strikeout game since June, on the way to holding the Nationals to just one run in seven innings. And to finish it, Fernando Salas and Jerry Blevins teamed up to shut the door.
Daniel Murphy extended his hitting streak against the Mets to 18 games, though he struck out to end it, whiffing at a nasty curveball by Blevins.
But none of it would have been possible if not for a three-RBI night from Rivera, whose mere presence defies the odds. Last week, in explaining his signing of Tim Tebow, general manager Sandy Alderson cited Rivera, the Bronx native and recently crowned Pacific Coast League batting champion.
Said Alderson: “The idea that any one player has no chance of making it to the big leagues, I reject.”
Rivera, 27, has spent his career gathering crumbs, and turning them into opportunities. He had not started since Aug. 23. But three days after a home-plate collision, Wilmer Flores is still having trouble turning his neck. Kelly Johnson could have started instead. But Collins, who still plays his hunches, went with his intuition. He liked what he saw Saturday, when Rivera collected a pinch hit. So it was Rivera’s name he wrote on the lineup card.
As a September call-up, that posted lineup card was Rivera’s first stop upon arriving at Nationals Park. From there, he knew what to do.
Rivera ripped a run-scoring single in the first, then lifted a sacrifice fly to knock in a run in the fifth. But he saved his best work for the 10th, when the Mets needed him most.
In the leftfield bullpen, Blevins stood next to Jim Henderson, their focus glued to the drama at the plate. Mark Melancon forced Rivera into an 0-and-2 hole, granting him no luxury of even guessing at what would come next.
Still, Rivera shortened his swing and redefined his goals. Contact would be his aim, anything else would be a bonus.
“This is the difference between a guy in Triple-A and a guy in the big leagues,” Blevins said. “For him to come up in that moment and shine like he did, that’s pretty impressive.”
One of the NL’s top closers, Melancon made a rare mistake, leaving a cutter on the inner half of the plate. Rivera unleashed his simple swing, whipping his bat through the zone.
Soon, the celebration began. As he entered the clubhouse, his teammates formed a high-five line, one on each side of him. At the end, hitting coach Kevin Long emerged from around the corner, greeting him with a pair of whipped cream pies to the face.
“Great feeling, great feeling,” Rivera said, his first home run ball in the locker behind him. “But a better feeling when we finished it off and we were able to get the win.”