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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Pen pals well worth all the ink they’re getting

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler in the first

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler in the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Yankees on March 7 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: AP / John Bazemore


Say what you want about the importance of an April series, but this was the Nationals, and the Mets rolled into Sunday poised for a sweep of their chief NL East rivals.

Yet in the 12th inning, a few minutes after midnight, Jacob Rhame somehow wound up with the baseball in his hand.

As it turned out, the Mets already had exhausted their special weapons — Robert Gsellman, AJ Ramos, Seth Lugo — so here was Rhame, saddled with the responsibility of saving the Mets’ biggest game to date.

“It was different,” said Rhame, who was acquired from the Dodgers in last season’s Curtis Granderson trade. “I haven’t been in that situation.”

Still wondering if this Mets mojo is real? Mickey Callaway plucks Rhame from the bullpen to finish off the Nationals, and he delivers a performance worthy of the regular closer, Jeurys Familia — who deservedly had the night off. Rhame allowed a two-out double to Wilmer Difo but retired Adam Eaton on a routine bouncer to seal the Mets’ 6-5 win. “He didn’t look nervous at all,” Callaway said.

Rhame pocketed the baseball and stuck it in his duffel bag for the trip to Miami; he plans to give it to his dad.

Thanks to Callaway’s magic touch, the Mets were able to navigate seven innings after Matt Harvey’s exit in the fifth, a further example of how resourceful this bullpen is — and how resilient this team is as a whole.

“We grinded it out,” Callaway said. “They never give up.”

A crucial part of the Sunday night equation was the Gsellman-Lugo tandem, and the Mets’ preference to keep this dynamic duo in the bullpen probably is the main reason Zack Wheeler is being called up from Triple-A Las Vegas to make Wednesday’s start in Miami.

If Amed Rosario had corralled a hard-hit but catchable line drive in the seventh inning, Gsellman likely would have escaped with two scoreless innings of relief instead of getting nicked for his first run this season.

As for Lugo, his high-wire act in the ninth to preserve a 5-5 tie was impressive. With Bryce Harper on third and one out, Lugo intentionally walked Howie Kendrick and Trea Turner to load the bases, an unconventional strategy but the only path left for survival, and a nerve-rattling one at that. “Yeah, very much,” he said. But he whiffed Michael A. Taylor and Pedro Severino — on six pitches. For the punctuation, he rifled a 95-mph fastball that froze Severino.

Gsellman and Lugo have totaled 16 strikeouts in 12 innings and have a 0.75 ERA. “I’m proud of that,” Lugo said. “We take [our roles] very seriously.”

Previously, we were told to view Lugo and Gsellman as critical pieces in the Mets’ rotation depth. But that thinking has changed, and the front office now is stressing how important those middle-relief roles have become even though the Mets have an elite rotation. “Absolutely,” general manager Sandy Alderson said Sunday. “I think that’s true across the game.”

Rather than stick with traditional roles, Callaway identifies the sections of the opposing lineup he wants neutralized. With the strikeout ability of Lugo and Gsellman, they’re suited for any number of situations, and Alderson doesn’t want to break up a bullpen that entered Sunday with a 1.32 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 27 1⁄3 innings.

“It’s not just a matter of taking a guy out of the pen and spot-starting him,” Alderson said. “It makes him unavailable for a couple of days beforehand and makes him unavailable for three or four days afterwards. But more importantly, it just interrupts the acclimation process.”

That’s why Wheeler’s promotion was the most logical step. And without a concrete timetable yet for Jason Vargas, this could be more than merely a one-off for Wheeler. But the Mets thought it more important for Lugo and Gsellman to stay right where they are, which is the primary reason Wheeler is no longer in Vegas.

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