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A Pip of a Win

Gladys Knight wasn’t wrong when she concluded, over radios everywhere as 1973 became 1974, that she really had to use her imagination to keep on keepin’ on [1]. Yet her compadres the Pips couldn’t have been more right when they offered her this message of positive reinforcement:

You’re too strong not to keep on keepin’ on.

If you’ve been watching these Mets since April and you haven’t given up hope, you’ve probably really had to use your imagination. The statistics, the setbacks, the pervasive sense that anything that could go Mets would go Mets…staring down reality wouldn’t do you no good, double-negative notwithstanding. Per the lyrics Gerry Goffin penned with songwriting partner Barry Goldberg, darkness was all around us, blockin’ out the sun; emptiness had found us and it just wouldn’t let us go; and we had no choice but to make the best of (best of, best of) a bad situation.

On Wednesday night, the Mets faced several bad situations. Matt Harvey [2] gave up home runs to the first two batters he encountered. His velocity on hiatus, he made due with offspeed stuff for four innings. One of his pitches, to Kyle Schwarber [3], crossed Shea Bridge when it came to it. The 467-foot shot seemed a death blow to the Mets’ slight chances in this particular rematch of 2015 NLCS combatants. The score was 4-1, Harvey couldn’t throw hard, and he wouldn’t stick around. Soon, Matt would join as out of action for the evening Neil Walker [4], the second baseman who attempted to bunt his way on in the third inning only to do something unspecified but obviously horrible to his left leg between home and first. An MRI awaited Neil and, if appearances weren’t deceiving, a trip to the DL, too, where he projects to keep company with his double play partner and t-shirt [5] buddy Asdrubal Cabrera [6] and Josh Smoker [7]. Smoker was deployed for four innings during the previous night’s blowout [8], looked absolutely gassed at the end of his yeoman stint, and revealed in its wake a strained left shoulder.

Smoker was replaced on the roster by Rafael Montero [9], the pitcher who’ll never be mistaken for a Hallmark card, a Hallmark card billed as being what you send when you care to send the very best. Montero lands in our mailbox again and again postage due from Las Vegas. You toss him on the pile next to Neil Ramirez [10] and wonder why you keep receiving so much junk. Meanwhile, nominally active were Yoenis Cespedes [11], except he is bubble-wrapped for his own protection every third night, and Michael Conforto [12], whose stiff back couldn’t possibly be a concern despite it preventing the Mets’ #WriteInConforto campaign from gathering much momentum. Michael, ostensibly the Mets’ best player if you take your cue from the club’s wishful All-Star hyping, didn’t start any of the three games against the defending world champions. As candidates who forget to visit Wisconsin might remind you, that’s no way to win an election.

The defending world champions aren’t accomplishing much amidst their breathlessly anticipated incumbency. The power — Anthony Rizzo [13] and Ian Happ [14] in the first, Schwarber in the Bullpen Plaza — was certainly on for the Cubs versus the Diminished Knight, but the part where they put their gloves on and attempted to catch baseballs vexed the heck out of them. Their visible discomfort with fundamentals was the Mets’ lone saving grace for a while. In the second, Kris Bryant [15] fumbled a third out and allowed the Mets’ first run. Still, with Harvey unable to find the fifth one night after Zack Wheeler [16] didn’t see the third; the Mets’ bench depleted to its splinters; and Schwarber presumably preparing to break ground on a condominium complex where the 126th Street chop shops used to stand, you’d have thought Chicago could get away with a few yips.

Chicago would get away with nothing, because the Mets…yes, these Mets…they’re too strong not to keep on keepin’ on.

The first sign that this wouldn’t be the night New York died was when the Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth en route to the floor of their order. Harvey was due up with one out, but Harvey was done. Terry Collins could have pinch-hit Cespedes here, except Cespedes’s rigorously timed leg-preparation routine didn’t sync with the sudden arrival of the critical juncture at hand. He could have pinch-hit Conforto here if the prospective People’s Choice had a back that would allow Michael to be ever so briefly written into the nine-hole. #NoDiceNotYet. With Walker already removed and Lucas Duda [17] having entered the fray in his stead — T.J. Rivera [18] shifting from first to second to take over defensively for Neil — René Rivera [19], the backup catcher, was left as Collins’s only conventionally conceivable pinch-hitting option. Yet Terry couldn’t conceive of using René here, and with decent reason. As Casey Stengel [20] cannily suggested, if you don’t have a backup catcher, you’re reduced to praying a meteor doesn’t hobble Hobie Landrith [21] (something like that; you could look it up [22]).

So Terry opted for Steven Matz [23], pitcher, to pinch-hit in the fourth inning. The oddity was unorthodox enough to likely make Joe Maddon contemplate sending one of his catchers into pitch, but Collins wasn’t seeking genius credentials in this spot. No Mets pitcher had ever successfully pinch-hit any earlier than the seventh inning. Not too many Mets pitchers pinch-hit in general. When they do, the situation borders on desperate. Who has desperate situations in the fourth inning?

This team. Also, this team has a pitcher who has now successfully pinch-hit in the fourth inning. Matz generated a ground ball tailor-made to confound Cub fielding and then ran his Long Island ass off until he and it reached first base safely. Steven’s unlikely PH line in the box score thus encompassed an RBI, and the Mets were within two runs of the lead. Then they were within one when Juan Lagares [24] — pretty good player you sort of forgot existed for a couple of years — lifted a sac fly.

This team. Too strong not to keep on keepin’ on. Seriously. Here came Paul Sewald [25], back to being a savior in relief, giving the Mets a scoreless fifth and sixth. Here came that Juan again, tripling in Curtis Granderson [26] to knot the night at four in the bottom of the sixth. Here came Jerry Blevins [27], taking over for Fernando Salas [28] with one on and two out in the seventh, striking out Rizzo. Here stayed ostensible lefty specialist Blevins for a mind-boggling frame-and-a-third, fooling Bryant the righty for the eighth inning’s second out and freezing righty pinch-hitter Willson Contreras [29] for its third.

A ballgame tilting inexorably toward the Cubs and decidedly away from the Mets as recently as the top of the fourth hung in the balance as the bottom of the eighth commenced. When Granderson stepped to the plate to lead it off, he had 299 big league longballs to his credit. When he next saw the plate, he was stepping on it. Grandy took Carl Edwards, Jr. [30], on a trip deep down the right field line and collected a milestone along the way, home run No. 300. It didn’t fly nearly as far as Schwarber’s, but it couldn’t have been any more effective in influencing the course of Wednesday events. The Mets — post-Walker, post-Harvey, post ipso facto undermanned and overwhelmed — were ahead, 5-4. The Mets portion of the Citi Field audience, ascendant at last, applauded enough to recalibrate Granderson’s steady businesslike demeanor from sportsmanlike to crowdpleasing. He took the quickest of Curtis Calls. It was Grandly deserved.

Keepin’ on begat more keepin’ on. Jose Reyes [31] walked. Cespedes was carefully unwrapped for a pinch-single. Robert Gsellman [32] pinch-ran for Yoenis in a sentence you didn’t expect to read as long as you lived. Edwards left. Hector Rondon [33] entered. Reyes swiped third, nearing his own milestone with 498 bases stolen since June 15, 2003, fourteen years ago today. Gsellman resisted the temptation to add an SB notation to his fine print on the back end of Jose’s daring dash. But Robert would have the chance to trot in short order, for Duda took care of a three-run insurance premium payment, depositing it convincingly in the vicinity of where Grandy had recently dropped off his homer. The Mets led, 8-4, and chose to increase their coverage a little more. The Cubs may not have been the good hands people on Wednesday, yet the Mets wisely insured against a catastrophic slam by adding a fifth eighth-inning run on singles from Wilmer Flores [34], Jay Bruce [35] and Rivera…T.J., that is. René remained in reserve. You can’t be too careful these days.

All that was left at 9-4 in the ninth was for Addison Reed [36], who’d been warming up when it was 4-4 in the eighth, to come in and throw more pitches than one would care for him to throw, nineteen in all. The Cubs loaded the bases, but unloaded none of them. The Mets won by five after trailing by three and refusing to wallow in the least. Normally, you’d term it the greatest of nights [37].

The Mets, you may have divined, aren’t normal. Sometimes the glass is half-full. Often the glass is chipped and a pitcher gashes an index finger picking it up to innocently take a sip and, next thing you know, Rafael Montero is booking his favorite seat on JetBlue. Sure, the Mets thrillingly won a game you wouldn’t have suspected they weren’t slated to lose. Just as sure: they’re still 8½ to the rear of the Nationals (and further behind the Wild Card bunch out west), and no, we don’t know how bad Walker’s leg is, nor can we be certain when we’ll see Conforto starting or Cespedes regularly. Oh, and Harvey — how did he diagnose his outing? “My arm was not working at all,” Matt cheerlessly reported afterwards. A doctor’s visit was scheduled. The next sound you heard was Montero creeping inevitably up the rotation depth chart.

You’ve really got to use your imagination to envision the 30-34 Mets rising to legitimate contention, yet they were the 25-33 Mets less than a week ago. The Washingtons, assumed by consensus to be as impregnable as the Chicagos, are coming to Flushing with a battered bullpen, a bruised psyche [38] and a margin over the Mets that is 3½ games slimmer than it was last Friday. The Nats have lost five of six, the Mets have won five of six, and maybe you don’t have to press all that hard to think of good reasons to keep on keepin’ on.

Hope to see you at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan tonight at 7 [39] to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Mike Piazza [40]’s June 15, 2002, home run off Roger Clemens [41], some other Met anniversary [42] involving some other Met Hall of Famer, and a little book-signing besides. If you can’t be there, please tell the Mets to resist the temptation to fall behind in the first couple of innings. I’d like to catch them from ahead for a change.