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Wild-card-leading Mets find silver lining after rally comes up short

NEW YORK -- In a tight, three-way battle for the two National League wild cards, the Mets have looked like a team of destiny for almost two weeks now. It has been a parade of punctures, which figured to sink their boat, but every patch they’ve applied has worked. Players who are virtual unknowns and reclamation projects have filled in and thrived in both the starting rotation and the lineup, and this cavalcade of tiny miracles has all unfolded on a path paved with sub-.500 opponents.

On Saturday, the Mets got the acid test -- reliever Sean Gilmartin starting the game after Noah Syndergaard was scratched with strep throat -- and they failed it. Gilmartin was battered for five runs and didn’t get out of the first inning. Rafael Montero, the other option to start Saturday, came on and gave up five more runs.

For the first time in a long, long time, the patch didn’t hold. Things didn’t turn out rosy as the Mets fell behind by 10 runs before a bunch of inspired reserves led a comeback against the Phillies which fell short, a 10-8 loss before 39,995 at Citi Field.

The loss isn’t devastating. The Mets are still grasping on to a wild-card spot, just as they have at the end of every day since Sept. 11. New York and San Francisco are tied, with St. Louis a half-game back.

The acid test? It might have been a fail, but the players off the bench made it interesting and even got the potential winning run to the plate twice in the bottom of the ninth.

Getting a positive outcome in the face of defeat has been the story of this Mets season so far. Asdrubal Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes have been big-time run producers the past month despite injuries that would have put them on the DL earlier in the season. The club has gotten major offensive production by calling up undrafted free agent T.J. Rivera, snagging James Loney off the scrap heap and resurrecting Jose Reyes. With three key starting pitchers lost for the season or sidelined -- Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz -- the organization turned to Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, and they have shined.

But could manager Terry Collins really expect one more tiny pitching miracle?

“You know, one of these times something is going to happen,” he said.

What went wrong for Gilmartin? “Pretty much everything,” Collins said.

Still there was a big piece of good news: Syndergaard had a good bullpen session on Saturday before the game and is now slotted in to start Tuesday. It means he and Bartolo Colon are lined up to possibly start four of the last six games.

And though it’s a loss, this defeat might produce dividends in the season’s final eight games.

After the Mets failed to score and stranded two runners in the fourth, Collins did the smart thing: He looked ahead and pulled his four workhorses from the game for a much needed break.

Cabrera has been battling a left-knee injury, but fouled a ball hard off his right knee in Friday’s win and ultimately had to leave that game. He demanded to be back in the lineup Saturday because of the game’s importance -- Collins called him “a gamer” -- but he probably needed the day off.

Cespedes has a bad quad and has had only one full game off since Aug. 19. Reyes has had two games off since Aug. 13. Curtis Granderson has played in every game, coming off the bench just three times since Aug. 1.

And now the Mets also have a bench full of self-confident reserves after they fired up a rally that nearly resulted in the biggest comeback victory in franchise history. Gavin Cecchini had a pair of run-scoring doubles, his first big league hits. Rivera had a pair of RBI singles. Ty Kelly had a hit, an RBI and threw out a runner trying to score with a throw from left field. Brandon Nimmo had a run-scoring double.

Slumping Jay Bruce even hit a home run.

“That’s exactly what these kind of games provide,” Collins said. “They give those guys confidence they can play. Look at Gavin Cecchini with two hits; all of a sudden he thinks, ‘Hey, I do belong here.’

“Those are things that are going to help us as we go to the final week. You put them in a game now ... they think they belong. It’s going to help.”

The Mets might not be the team of destiny, and they might have lost a game in which they were the favorite on paper. But they also might be a better team going forward.