Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s long jump onto home plate and into a waiting throng of teammates was a release for a team in desperate need of one.
“It’s a positive,” Nieuwenhuis said after his three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth powered the Mets to a 4-3 come-from-behind win over to the Cubs Sunday afternoon at Citi Field.
The centerfielder, who finished 1-for-3, drilled a 1-0 fastball from Carlos Marmol (2-4) off the Pepsi Porch in right to end a three-game losing streak.
It was only the Mets’ third win this month.
“We really tried to come into this game and get something going,” Nieuwenhuis said.
“If we can’t use this as a spark, I don’t know what else we can do,” manager Terry Collins said. “I hope that gets us going.”
Marlon Byrd started the comeback with a leadoff homer off Marmol in the ninth to cut the deficit to 3-1. Byrd’s 11th homer of the year was followed by a Lucas Duda walk and a John Buck single. Omar Quintanilla’s sac bunt moved the runners over and set the stage for Nieuwenhuis’s first home run since June 23, 2012.
“I was trying to see it out of [his] hand because he has a good slider,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I was just really trying to see it out of [his] hand and read the pitch.”
Before the ninth inning, it appeared as if the Mets were going to let another strong Jeremy Hefner start go to waste.
Hefner yielded three runs — one earned — on five hits and six innings. He struck out five and walked one as his ERA dropped from 4.11 to 3.96. However, the right-hander was the unfortunate bystander of a 15-second sequence that summed up the state of the Mets.
Trailing 1-0 in the fifth, David Wright threw Alfonso Soriano’s routine ground ball high and wide of Daniel Murphy. Murphy recovered the ball by the Mets dugout, but overthrew John Buck to allow Starlin Castro to score. Backing up third on the play, Quintanilla’s throw home was late as Nate Schierholtz slid past the Mets catcher.
The Mets were down 3-0 after one of the most improbable plays in franchise history.
“It was just one of those crazy plays,” Collins said.
But the three runs were all the Mets would allow, as the bullpen contingent of Carlos Torres, David Aardsma and Bobby Parnell (5-3) limited the Cubs to one hit over the final four innings.
“[Hefner] pitched well and our bullpen did the same,” Nieuwenhuis said. “They don’t get as much credit as they deserve. That was a great performance.”
One that came at arguably the most vital portion of the Mets’ season.
Entering Sunday’s finale, the Mets had lost nine-of-11 in June. Their 24-39 record was third worst in MLB behind the Marlins (20-47) and the Astros (25-44). Perhaps most dispiriting of all, the Mets are 13 1/2 games back of NL East-leading Atlanta.
Even with 98 games left in the Mets’ campaign, the season has been essentially distilled to Matt Harvey starts, the All-Star Game and the call-ups of Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud.
“One hundred percent of it,” Collins said when asked before the game how much of the coaching staff’s job is keeping morale high. “It’s not the work side. The work side is commonplace, here. So it’s about making sure the attitude stays positive. That’s why I said [Saturday night] one of the things you’re seeing is — it’s all part of human nature — that when we fall behind 5-0 or fall behind 4-0, you can feel an attitude in the dugout just collapse. That’s where we’ve got to get stronger. We’ve really got to get stronger playing nine innings. Play nine innings as hard as you can play it, and when we’re all done, take what comes. If you have more runs, great. If you don’t, you have to grind out the game. You have to grind out for three hours. It’s what we get paid for. So, right now, our main job [as a coaching staff] is to make sure the attitude stays positive.”
Follow Mets beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.