By Joe Rini
The Mets called the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s for help and perhaps they’ve drawn a Royal Flush.
While the return of injured veterans like Asdrubal Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes has keyed the Mets drive from two games under .500 in late August to the cusp of a wildcard berth in the playoffs heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the team has also been bolstered by contributions from late season call-ups from Triple-A Las Vegas.
Infielder T.J. Rivera lead the Pacific Coast League in batting this season and has continued his hot hitting in Flushing while pitchers Seth Lugo and Rob Gsellman have been solid replacements for the injured Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Prior to the Mets 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins on September 16, I was able to chat with Rivera during batting practice about his early experiences as a major leaguer.
Rivera is a Bronx native who had a rooting section of friends on the field behind the batting cage who hugged and greeted the returning hero who had just recently hit a 10th inning home run to defeat the Nationals, after he took his batting practice swings. “It’s a great feeling to be playing in front of family and friends,” he said.
An unsigned free agent out of college, it was a long road of six seasons in the minor leagues before Rivera was called up by the Mets in August and he credited the support of his wife and family who supported him with “love and kindness” on his journey to the major leagues. A relatively “old” rookie at 27, Rivera said it was important to believe in himself that he would ultimately get the opportunity to play in the majors.
He also cited his veteran Mets teammates, in particular Curtis Granderson, for showing the rookies how to “go about their business” and also accepting the rookies and treating them like they belong in the major leagues. To succeed at this level, Rivera said it’s important for him to have the mentality of “play my game…don’t change and don’t try to do too much…and play good defense.”
That approach is working so far for T.J. Rivera as he is batting .348 with 3 home runs and 14 RBI through September 27. With the Mets in a pennant race, Rivera said it’s exciting and fun and he wanted to do anything help the team. For example, when not in the starting lineup, Rivera said he’ll watch video and work in the indoor batting cage during the game and try to anticipate who he could be facing as a pinch hitter though it should be noted that as September has continued, Rivera and his hot bat have spent more time in the starting lineup than coming off the bench.
My conversation with Rivera took place a few days after Wally Backman resigned as the manager of the Las Vegas team and when I asked about what it was like to play for Backman, Rivera said, “Wally was a great players manager…he wanted the best for you…and he had your back.”
Entering play on Wednesday, the Mets hold a ½ game lead over the San Francisco Giants and 1 ½ game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the two National League wildcard berths. While their lead is slim, the Mets do control their own destiny at the moment and hope that their closing weekend series in Philadelphia against the Phillies will be a prelude to wildcard series game and another extended playoff run.