New York Mets: The Improbable Rise Of T.J. Rivera
Tommy Gilligam, USATSI

As the New York Mets embark on the postseason, a surprising face has found its way into the middle of the team’s lineup.

The idea that the New York Mets’ fifth hitter in a do-or-die game is an undrafted free agent with barely any major league plate appearances is unthinkable.

Scratch that — it’s reality.

Terry Collins inserted T.J. Rivera, the hometown kid making the most of his opportunity with the Amazin’s, into the 5-hole for Wednesday’s crucial wild card contest with the San Francisco Giants.

‘One Heck of a Feel-good story’

Look up ‘baseball longshot’ in the dictionary, and you’ll find a picture of TJ Rivera. Okay, so maybe we’re slightly exaggerating, but the point remains: Rivera’s got ‘one heck of a feel-good story.’

He attended Troy University, where in another feel-good story, he was a member of the baseball team that befriended Cody Brooks, whose story you should definitely check out, too.

Well, as legend has it, T.J. went undrafted out of college. The Mets signed him in 2011, and he debuted in the Appalachian League in 2012. Despite raking in pro ball, he never received any attention from the Big Apple media.

Rather, the only press came in the form of negative criticism from unnamed scouts. “He’s not a great athlete,” one said. “He’s got a limited skillset and doesn’t profile as a major leaguer,” said another.

Despite the odds stacked against him, Rivera worked his rear end off. In turn, he’s been rewarded with the shot to make ‘T.J. Rivera‘ a household name around the City.

“It’s a great story,’’ Terry Collins said. “All the years I spent in player development, T.J.’s story is what you want to tell every kid playing a second year in low A ball or repeating in the Gulf Coast League: there’s always a chance.’’

‘He just needs an opportunity’

“He just needs an opportunity,” said one National League scout, per Adam Rubin of ESPN. “This kid hits and keeps hitting.”

On the later note: Rivera was a lifetime .324 hitter in the minors. He won the Pacific Coast League’s batting title in 2016 (.353), and never hit below .300 in a single-season.

Simply put, Rivera raked at every stop.

“He swings at everything and hits everything, basically,” teammate Ty Kelly said. “One of the first basemen last series asked if there was a magnet on his barrel. He’s one of those guys, he doesn’t ever have to take pitches. He’s going to get hits because he can hit from his eyes to his ankles.”

Scouts have always lauded Rivera for his advanced approach at the plate. He’s finally been given the opportunity to showcase his talents at the game’s highest level.

“It feels like something I’ve been hoping for and dreaming of all my life,’’ Rivera said. “It’s literally something I saw in my dreams over the years.’’

‘Super Utility player’

During his lengthy tenure in the minors, Rivera played nearly every position, prompting scouts and bloggers alike to deem him a ‘super utility player.’

Noted Wayne Cavadi of Minor League Ball:

“Remember Luis Sojo? He bided his time on the bench, got the hit when the Yankees needed him and actually played a pivotal role in the Subway Series.

“Looking at Rivera’s resume and the simple fact that his contact has never digressed, it seems to make Rivera a very attractive super utility candidate. Should the Mets need a hit or contact to move a runner over, Rivera appears to be the kind of guy who could get it done. Need an infielder in a pinch? Don’t worry Rivera is there.”

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.