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Team of Destiny To Be Determined

When Jim Henderson [1] entered Tuesday night’s game at St. Louis — one on, one out, Yadier Molina [2] coming up, Mets leading by two in the seventh — it occurred to me that this was potentially a pivotal moment in Henderson’s Met legacy. If Henderson surrendered a two-run homer to Molina, which wasn’t out of the question in light of Jim’s lengthy layoff and Yadier’s inherent evil, we’d probably always remember the righthander (steady April notwithstanding) as an ultimately overripe reliever who torpedoed the last chance we had to make something out of a disgustingly frustrating season. But if Henderson kept the Mets’ edge intact, we probably wouldn’t remember anything about it all. That’s how our memories operate. Do something to us, and we’ll hold that grudge for eternity. Do something for us, well, let’s get to the eighth and see what happens.

As it happened, Molina did as Molina does and singled on the first pitch, placing Redbird runners on first and second. But Henderson next elicited a slow ground ball from Jhonny Peralta [3] for a fielder’s choice to force Molina, then struck out Jedd Gyorko [4]. The Mets still led, 6-4.

We can forget about remembering Henderson’s clutch two-thirds of a seventh inning because the Mets went on to extend their lead and win, 7-4. Middle relievers, even those who extinguish threats before they can devour what’s left of your year, are designed to fade into the background when everything turns out all right. The legacy of Jim Henderson, 2016 New York Met, can return to TBD status.

The same to-be-determination can be applied to his entire team, which engaged in a fairly thrilling victory [5] at Busch Stadium, one that will stand time’s test as a signpost of the best that was yet to come for these Mets…or be quickly forgotten if it isn’t followed up by more and more victories, whatever their composition.

Insight alert: The Mets have to keep winning ballgames from here on out. Pretty insightful, eh? That’s been the Mets’ assignment since April 3, but they’ve slacked off on the W’s enough to make their task monstrously difficult, though not yet impossible. It is the existence of possibility that made the game of August 23 land as monumental before, during and immediately after it was played. Whether it lives to ring a bell in the weeks, months and years to come depends on how the games of August 24, August 25 and so on unfold.

On many levels, it deserves to be remembered for as long as the length of Gary Cohen’s hair when he was a senior at Columbia [6]. Effective seventh-inning relief from Henderson was just one strand of the entire stunning picture.

The best relief pitching, of course, is that which doesn’t have to be used. That wasn’t an option Tuesday night. Jon Niese [7] took the mound in the bottom of the first, staked to a three-nothing lead following Wilmer Flores [8]’s lefty-bashing home run off Jaime Garcia [9], and commenced to giving runs back ASAP. After four batters, he gave back the mound. Niese, we had been warned, was having an issue with his left knee (most alarmingly, it keeps being found inside the bottom half of a Mets uniform).

There’s a fine line between the pitcher who tries to pitch through discomfort for the good of his team and the pitcher who tries to pitch through discomfort to the detriment of his team. Niese’s teammate from when he first came up in 2008, Johan Santana [10], revealed after his final start of that year that he had been pitching with a torn meniscus, another of those body components you have little idea exists unless you’re a Mets fan. Santana, in an episode that was transferred directly to legend [11], threw a three-hit shutout at the Florida Marlins and carried the Mets to their 162nd game with a puncher’s chance of playing it forward. Johan had kept his injury quiet throughout that pennant race, pitching better and better as the stakes intensified. It’s not like Jerry Manuel [12] had any better options, not in the first inning, not in the ninth.

Terry Collins was kind of strapped for a starter, too, though the theoretical dropoff from Cy-worthy Santana in a season’s penultimate contest to the spare parts of ’08 was probably exponentially greater and scarier than that between a hobbled (if not necessarily unvaliant) Niese giving it a go in a reasonably big game and pot luck.

Pot luck had an identity, actually. It was Robert Gsellman [13], missing a vowel but not the opportunity to make a recognizable name for himself. Very recent Las Vegan Gsellman was sort of facing what faced Niese upon his major league debut eight Septembers ago. Like Niese, Gsellman was beckoned into a playoff chase in which every result increasingly mattered. Unlike Niese, who performed as if freaked out [14] by the bright lights of Miller Park (3 IP, 5 ER in a maiden outing rescued by Manuel’s bullpen of infamy and a tenth-inning sac fly from Endy Chavez [15]), Gsellman showed up on the Busch mound with a big grin evident. You’re making your debut, you’re being asked to keep your barely contending team afloat and you’re taking on the very opponent that has be to taken down a notch to make anything of value happen in the standings?

Why not grin? It might not be how Sal Maglie [16] would have done it, but I doubt anybody’s referring to Robert as the Barber. Then again, it’s doubtful anybody’s referred Robert to a barber of late. Maybe the young man, bearing a passing tress-ticular resemblance to Jimmy Fallon’s Mets Bucket Hat Guy [17], can consult with Jacob, Noah and 1980 Gary [18] regarding styling tips. Before Gsellman could get in the flow of pitching to big leaguers, however, he had to deal with the Welcome Wagon gift basket Niese had arranged for him. Two walks and a Brandon Moss [19] single accounted for one run and two runners. Molina, of course, was the first batter Gsellman had to encounter. From Heilman to Gsellman, it’s always Molina.

Yadier the Irritant doubled in a second St. Louis run. Peralta grounded out, but it brought home Moss. That luscious sundae the Mets fixed for the themselves in the top of the first, crowned by Wilmer’s three-run cherry, was now melted. At three-three after one, it was a whole new ballgame.

Just as well. Who wants one started by Niese?

The Mets cottoned nicely to their second chance within a last chance. Gsellman, in his first time batting, laid down a sac bunt to set up the revival corps of Jose Reyes [20] (single) and Asdrubal Cabrera [21] (double), leading to a pair of runs. Reyes and Cabrera had walked and singled, respectively, to facilitate Flores in the first. Maybe that propaganda about how we should just wait until we get our injured troops back — the ones, that is, who can come back — contained a kernel of hopeful truth. Reyes is running and rolling in a manner reminiscent of how he ran and rolled in the initial heyday of Molina (an epoch still sadly in progress) and Cabrera is once more Joe Pro at short. The two-hole fits him very nicely at bat.

The other returner to form, Yoenis Cespedes [22], remained vital Tuesday night. No home run from the man in the comfortingly familiar neon sleeve, but two hits and two sweet defensive plays, one picking a line drive from just above the left field grass blades in the first, the other a leap at the corner wall to take away a probable homer in the sixth. At a couple of intervals, the dreaded quad appeared to have acted up, but then it stopped acting whatsoever, as Cespedes ran fluidly and purposefully. All we can do is hope he (as opposed to Niese) can endure successfully despite whatever might bother him inning to inning. It will require rooting with crossed fingers, but we know how to do that.

Gsellman was now a pitcher with a two-run advantage and he made it hold up. No runs in the second. No runs in the third. After Joltin’ Justin Ruggiano [23] homered deep to lead off the fourth, no runs in the bottom of that frame. Three-and-two-thirds of season-saving ball from the rawest of rookies once he succeeded the veteran who can’t help but rub the rawest of nerves. Niese has since been sent to the disabled list, where he might bump into Steven Matz [24]. Gsellman, a starter in the minors, may have found himself a promising temp gig.

The Mets, meanwhile, have found themselves not completely out of contention, though how far in they are is up for calibration. Three-and-a-half behind the leader in their category with 37 games to go is, unlike us, not insane. But it requires some luck (the Marlins lost, but the Pirates won, so we’re still fourth in our ad hoc division), some health (Niese we can get by without, Cespedes we can’t) and a ton of good baseball. The Mets played a bunch of it Tuesday night. From the second through the ninth, six relievers gave up only one run. With runners in scoring position, hitters went five-for-ten. There was a sweetly executed tack-on tally in the top of the ninth — Reyes single, wild pitch, Cespedes infield single, James Loney [25] single — and a stressless forty-second save from Jeurys Familia [26]. There was a third consecutive win for the first time since America’s 240th birthday party. Seriously, the Mets hadn’t strung together three wins in a row since they took every game between June 30 and July 4…which is a pretty long time ago.

Which, in turn, explains why winning this one was so important — and why it won’t be destined to stick out in Metsopotamian memory unless many more such pleasant memories are manufactured pronto.