- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Jerry Manuel weathered a mistake of his own ninth-inning design, and on the night his Mets finally beat an American League team worth a damn, the result was apropos.
Manuel is proving to be a much tougher out than we all thought. He survived his nearly disastrous deferred call to his closer because, well, that's what survivors do.
"In order to be worth anything," Manuel said in a quiet moment outside his winning Yankee Stadium clubhouse, "I think at some point you have to go through the fire."
He was talking about the noisy calls for his job, the cries for managerial justice last month that have turned as silent as a confessional booth in the dead of night.
"As much as it was on the periphery closing in on me," Manuel told ESPNNewYork.com, "it didn't affect me because I still felt I had my team's attention."
The Mets are listening to Manuel and responding to him, and not just in Baltimore and Cleveland, the American League's answers to Lourdes, the places where the sick go to get well. Francisco Rodriguez is a perfect case in point.
The closer warmed up in the ninth, sat back down after the Mets turned their 3-0 lead into a 4-0 lead, then got back up after his manager made the mistake of asking Raul Valdes, of all people, to finish off the Yanks in the Bronx.
Two singles later, K-Rod had reason to be annoyed when asked to save Manuel and Valdes from themselves. But after Brett Gardner battled him to the Subway Series death and won a 12-pitch walk to load the bases, Rodriguez struck out Derek Jeter on three pitches and immediately convinced Nick Swisher to hit a popup that Luis Castillo wasn't around to drop.
"I was trying to give him a blow," Manuel said of K-Rod, and of course the manager had picked the wrong opponent and the wrong building for such a corner-cutting risk.
But as he carried in a seven-game winning streak, including a six-game road streak that demanded a Ford Frick-styled asterisk, Manuel was due for a double-bogey. His team covered for him because, well, that's what good teams playing hard for good managers do.
"Nothing's different about Jerry today from last year, and the players appreciate that," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "The pressure hasn't bothered or changed Jerry. He doesn't let things out of his control affect him, and that's a quality in this city that you'd better have."
Let's face it: In his most desperate hour, at a time when the entire marketplace was collapsing around him, Manuel faced a cold and unforgiving truth. He was about to be fired without leaving any discernible mark on the New York landscape.
A nice guy, for sure, and one with a good sense of humor, too. Only Manuel hadn't imposed his personality or his will on the twisted fate of the Mets.
He appeared as certain to be fired as Tom Coughlin was at times during the 2007 season, before his Giants ripped off one of the most improbable championship runs the NFL has ever seen.
This isn't to say these 2010 Mets will end up like those 2007 Giants, or that Manuel is destined to take that Coughlin ride under a ticker-tape rain. But the Mets do wake up Saturday as a playoff team, a 39-28 team worthy of holding first in the wild-card race.
"Right now we're playing unbelievable baseball," said Angel Pagan, who delivered a big two-run double in the eighth.
It's a long, long way from the day Manuel suggested his team was "unprepared" to face Livan Hernandez. It's a long, long way from the four-game sweep in Florida that left the Mets in last place and inspired Jeff Wilpon to cancel his appointments and hop on a plane.
The owner had officially joined the news media posse, and Manuel held firm against the storm.
"I try not to be a double-minded man," he said. "It's somewhat unstable to think one thing and do another. In the position of manager, you have to be immovable regardless of what's going on around you.
"When things are going like they were going, then you hope to be the focal point because you don't want it to be on your team. You have to insulate your team from whatever that is out there and don't let it become a distraction or a diversion."
The Yankees were the distracted mess on this night, succumbing to a strong NL East opponent for a third straight time. The home team isn't used to seeing its neighbors so high on life; the Mets had never before started a series with the Yanks on a winning streak of more than three games.
The Mets' streak is at eight now, and Manuel doesn't see eight as enough. "You never know what loss will lead you to a different streak," he said. "You have to keep going to the well."
Manuel went to the well a few Yankee batters too late in Game 1, and it didn't cause a dent. The manager who is forever reading up on deep and righteous thinkers, who calls Dr. King-to-Gandhi-to-Tolstoy his personal Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, has established himself as a fighter, a New Yorker and an honest-to-God gangsta.
Yes, he survived his own error Friday night. That's what survivors do.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg