WASHINGTON — After Noah Syndergaard’s 10 strikeouts, and the few unlucky bounces Tuesday night that doomed Jeurys Familia, the responsibility of closing out the relentless Nationals fell to Jerry Blevins, the Mets’ slender lefty specialist.
Oddly enough, Blevins was the perfect man for the job. He doesn’t rely on intimidating heat like Syndergaard, or the cannonball sinker that Familia employs. But when Daniel Murphy stepped to the plate with two outs in the 10th inning and the Mets trying to protect a 4-3 lead, the pitcher Terry Collins called to stop the MVP candidate was Blevins, the easy-going, loose-limbed former National.
It fit the narrative. From the start, this was a game of unlikely heroes, with T.J. Rivera getting a rare start in place of the injured Wilmer Flores at second base and delivering three RBIs, including what would be the winning homer in the 10th inning off Mark Melancon. Collins would say later that he played Rivera on a hunch, to break up the lefties in his lineup, and he was rewarded for that leap of faith.
After Rivera smacked that homer, his first in the majors, there was cause for celebration in the Mets’ dugout, a place that had been morose only minutes earlier after blowing a 3-1 lead with a frustrating meltdown in the ninth. But Rivera, despite his sip of coffee in the big leagues, knew there was more work ahead.
“It was a great feeling, a great feeling,” a beaming Rivera said at his locker. “But it’s a better feeling when you can finish it off.”
Ah, yes. Back to the whole finishing part. As stunning as Rivera’s home run was, Familia’s blown save, his fourth, was equally demoralizing. So much, in fact, that Familia exited the clubhouse, fully dressed, before it even opened to the media. That was rare for any player, and for Familia not to stick around and celebrate with his teammates spoke to how deflated he must have been after the ninth.
Familia surrendered four ground balls, three of them never left the infield, and yet the Nats still scored two runs to tie it. Of course, it was a hustling Murphy, leading off, that beat out Rivera’s throw after a diving stop. Then a throwing error by Jose Reyes, an RBI single and a high-chopper back to the mound that Familia couldn’t glove as the tying run scored right in front of him. It was maddening.
But the game wasn’t lost. Rivera made sure of that with his blast into the leftfield seats, and Blevins did what has been nearly impossible for Mets’ pitchers this season — not only neutralize Murphy, but strike him out. Murphy’s sixth-inning double gave him a hit in all 18 games against the Mets this season, the longest by any opponent in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Entering Tuesday, Murphy also was leading the majors in batting average (.347) and the NL in slugging percentage (.598) and OPS (.990).
As for Murphy’s supernatural performance against the Mets, he should be an X-Files episode after ripping them at a .412 clip this season. For a minute, it seemed like the Mets might avoid him in the 10th after Fernando Salas got two quick outs, but Jayson Werth’s single set up the inevitable showdown.
“There’s one guy I don’t want up in that spot,” Collins said, “and it was Dan Murphy.”
For Blevins, however, it didn’t seem to matter much, and he cooly took Murphy apart, in his own style. Murphy eyed a curveball for strike one, then waved at the next to fall behind 0-and-2. Blevins then went sinker-curve-sinker, and all three missed the plate as Murphy worked the count full.
“Murphy’s one of the best hitters in the game,” Blevins said. “Those are moments you have to stand up.”
And Blevins knew exactly what he wanted next. Another curve, and Murphy waved through it. Game over, and Blevins’ first save since Sept. 11, 2012. He recalled the date right away. “My wife’s birthday,” Blevins said. For the Mets, however, this victory is one they’ll remember, too. Especially if it helps land them the wild card.