What was it Philippé Wynne was advising all over the radio  in the autumn of 1976? Hey y’all, prepare yourself for the rubber game…win. Was that the lyric? Ah, close enough for rhythm & blues. However they heard it sung, the Mets apparently took a 43-year-old clue from the Spinners’ featured vocalist and, for the first time in 2019, found a way to take the final match in a series that was heretofore tied. Like games on Sundays (particularly at Citi Field), rubber games were a subspecies of contest that urban legend insisted the Mets were incapable of conquering. Urban legend also recently had it that Jim Riggelman would be managing the Mets by now and that Adeiny Hechavarria  was the root of all Met futility, so sometimes you just gotta take urban legend like you take a Met season: one game at a time.
Sunday afternoon’s 4-3 victory  over the Detroit Tigers was one game to take out for a nice dinner when it was done in a civilized 2:33. Despite the unnecessary Interleague presence of an opponent I am not normally predisposed to much consider let alone root against — the Tigers hail from the same city that gave the world the Spinners — I detected a real throwback quality at play. Starting pitchers Zack Wheeler  and Spencer Turnbull each pitched long and admirably, Wheeler a little longer and to slightly greater effect. Not only did Zack go seven-and-a-third, he rightly batted in the seventh. It was right because he was still going strong on the mound, and it was right because he’d gotten himself two hits earlier in the game.
The helping of his own cause notwithstanding, Zack’s run support was generated in an inning when other Mets lifted the offense on their backs pleasantly and repeatedly. First baseman Dominic Smith , not having gathered so much rust in his Rusty Staub role that he couldn’t contribute to the lineup, led off the bottom of the fourth with an authoritatively struck double to deep center. One out later, Wilson Ramos , as hot as he is not fast, singled. Todd Frazier , detecting a hole the size of the Cumberland Gap on the right side, smartly pushed a supersized bunt between first and second into the outfield. It so crossed up the shifting Tigers that not only did Smith score easily from third, but Ramos rumbled there from first to replace him. And an out after that, the aforementioned Hechavarria lined to over the right field fence his second opposite-field three-run homer of the series.
Of Mets who have started at least four consecutive games at second base this season, here are your updated home run and RBI leaders:
Robinson Cano: 3 HR, 13 RBI
Adeiny Hechavarria: 2 HR 6 RBI
Adeiny’s adios to Turnbull’s fastball put the Mets ahead, 4-3, and there the darn thing stayed the rest of the live-long day, which turned out to be not all that long. Carlos Gomez , another in the club’s self-renewing supply of non-left fielders assigned to play left field, reduced the risk of both length and danger when he dove and took away at least one base from Dawel Lugo to begin the sixth. Among the many Met reclamation projects that made the recent homestand so memorable, Gomez shows signs of being the keeper. Rajai Davis was DFA’d Sunday to create space for Michael Conforto post-concussion (sic transit Uber anecdote). Aaron Altherr’s role and potential are TBD. With Brandon Nimmo on the DL with no projected return date — what was termed a stiff neck turned out to be a bulging disc from whiplash — Gomez is going to be a keeper. He was probably a keeper a dozen years ago, but when Johan Santana is available, you can’t always keep what you want.
Wheeler protected his one-run lead clear into the eighth, when That Man Again, JaCoby Jones, led off with a single to left that not even Go-Go could successfully go after. Jones had just accumulated his sixth hit of the weekend. If we saw him often enough, he might be a latter-day sequel to Stan Musial. We saw the Cardinals 22 times a year in 1962 and 1963. Musial, 41 when expansion birthed the Mets, saw the kind of pitching staff we were putting together and resisted retiring for a couple of seasons. Ol’ Stan went on to bat a mere .405 against our first beleaguered staffs. Small sample size caveat notwithstanding, Jones had just simultaneously become someone we’d heard of and a .462 hitter versus our current corps. The Tigers weren’t known for their offensive roar before they wandered into Flushing. Suddenly we learned the name “JaCoby” and to fear his mighty bat. They didn’t bring anybody else we should worry about, did they?
Oh, look who’s coming to the plate. It’s Miguel Cabrera, pinch-hitting for Turnbull. Some pinch-hitter. He’s not like other 2019 Tigers. He needs neither an introduction nor benefit of a three-game hot streak to convince you he’s Musial-level lethal. He’s Miguel Cabrera, which has been good enough to say it all since 2003. If he had remained a Marlin, he’d probably be an aggregate of Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rendon in our contemporary nightmares, never mind invoking eventual Hall of Famers from Stan Musial to Chipper Jones who killed us for sport. But Cabrera was traded to Detroit in the same offseason Gomez was traded to Minnesota, though not for reasons as noble as getting Santana. The Marlins were ridding themselves of Cabrera so as to never have to pay an elite player for an extended period, lest they accidentally make a habit of remaining competitive. The Tigers went on to clinch four division titles and a pennant with Cabrera at the heart of their order. Along the way he won the triple crown, something nobody’d done since Mike Yastrzemski’s grandfather, and became a lock to join the likes of Stan the Man and Larry Chipper in Cooperstown.
These days, he’s 35, verging on ancient for his sport (though younger than Cano), and slow compared to Ramos, but he’s still Miguel Cabrera, still topping .300 as a rule. The lone valid selling point of Interleague baseball is getting to see and appreciate a superstar you would otherwise miss. Miggy the Marlin I wouldn’t get a kick out of coming up as Wheeler was holding tight to a one-run lead, but this was almost a treat. Honestly, I wasn’t too happy to face him here in the context of wanting the Mets to take this series, but I did love the game within the rubber game. This sort of encounter is what makes a Sunday afternoon great. Your team is up by one. Your pitcher is hanging in there. Their manager — ex-Met Ron Gardenhire, in this case — looks to his bench and sends up an immortal who surely ain’t what he used to be, yet as the starting first baseman, the otherwise DH went 2-for-2 on Friday and added another hit Saturday to increase his lifetime total to 2,730. You could wind up disdaining the outcome, but you had to embrace the confrontation.
Zack did. He struck out Cabrera on three pitches. Take care, Miggy. See you at Comerica in 2022 and upstate whenever applicable.
Striking out Miguel Cabrera would have been a fantastic way to wrap up a Mets win, but that was only the first out of the eighth. Wheeler returned to Tigers who were not particularly famous outside the 313 area code, and they were not so easily tamed. While Niko Goodrum batted, Jones stole second. While Jones stood on second, Wheeler walked Goodrum. Thus ended Zack’s day.
In came Jeurys Familia , up went blood pressure, yet down went Lugo and Nicholas Castellanos, both on strikes, thereby ferrying the Mets safely to the bottom of the eighth still up by a run. Advantage unpadded prior to the ninth, Mickey Callaway didn’t have to think about what to do next, which is always helpful. He called on Edwin Diaz  to protect that one-run lead. And Diaz…
Well, Diaz walked leadoff batter Christin Stewart on four pitches. After he did so, I heard myself let out an Edwin in the same “don’t do that” parental tones I once upon a time habitually directed toward John, Armando, Braden, Billy, Frankie and, yes, Jeurys. I realized Edwin Diaz has finally done it. He had really and truly ascended into the ranks of Met closers, not just on paper, but in my gut.
The only other Tiger I knew before Friday, Josh Harrison, came on to pinch-run for Stewart and, as he did when he was a Pirate, acted like a real pain in the ass. Harrison stole second, though not until Diaz had struck out Ronny Rodriguez. Brandon Dixon followed with a single to left that moved Harrison to third. Dixon would go on to steal second unaccosted, placing the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position for That Man Again.
Indeed, after John Hicks had fanned for the second out, Jones was up once more. JaCoby, not Chipper; as if it mattered. Diaz, allegedly flawless in Seattle, was being all too fallible in New York. All Met closers reveal themselves as such sooner or later, usually sooner. (Good thing we got Cano in that trade.) JaCoby worked Edwin to three-and-two, refusing to simply go away. Finally, on Diaz’s tenth delivery to him and thirty-second pitch of the ninth, Jones resisted the charms of a fastball just off the plate. JaCoby’s fine-eyed judgment would have been sufficient to load the bases in a future where an impeccably calibrated electronic strike zone holds sway.
In this game Sunday, however, the call was in the hands of home plate umpire Jerry Meals, and Meals saw it as strike three and out three. If you were scoring at home, you could put it in the books as a save for Diaz with a PS of “thank you” to the human element, a factor, like Adeiny Hechavarria, still capable of providing surprise favors. The Mets were done with the Tigers for another three years and through with being a statistically losing club for at least one day. They were .500 again — 26-26 on the season, 2-1 on the weekend, 6-1 on the week.
Bet ya didn’t see that coming seven days ago. But the unexpected tends to happen when the human element starts to jam.