NEW YORK -- No hero's welcome awaited Ryan Church in the home dugout, despite all that had happened over the previous few moments. Church had undoubtedly just saved Thursday's game -- and quite possibly the entire Mets season -- yet his manager remained completely livid.

"I could've strangled him," Jerry Manuel said.

Church laughed.

"He did yell at me," he said.

Manuel was angry that Church hadn't stolen second base six pitches earlier, when Carlos Beltran bolted for third base with the Mets down by two runs in the eighth. Had he done so, Ramon Martinez's single would have driven in both Church and Beltran, ensuring that the Mets would have an opportunity to beat the Cubs.

Instead, Church had to do things the hard way.

Martinez's single advanced him only to second base before third-string catcher Robinson Cancel smacked a double down the right-field line. Instead of watching from the dugout, Church rounded third, where Cubs right fielder Kosuke Fukudome sized him up -- firing a bullet roughly two yards up the third-base line.

There was no chance for Church to score, so he improvised. Shoving the bulk of his body weight toward the foul side of the line, Church tiptoed around Cubs catcher Koyie Hill and landed, an arm's length out of reach, to the far side of home plate. For half a second, nothing happened. Then Church flailed backward with his right hand, as Hill attempted in vain to tag him.

Safe, home-plate umpire Jerry Layne ruled. And somewhere beneath his anger, Manuel smiled.

"He did come up with a good slide," Manuel said. "I don't know where it came from. But it was obviously really big for us."

"The dirt was slushy, and coming around third base, the grass was wet," Church said. "I was just fortunate enough to keep my footing and not slip."

And in doing so, he ensured that the Mets would not slip. Church was the tying run in what developed into a 7-6 Mets victory, keeping Manuel's team tied atop the National League Wild Card standings for another day while moving it one game behind the Phillies in the NL East.

As if all that wasn't improbable enough, Manuel had to endure questioning before the game regarding why he continued to play Church -- a .203 hitter in September -- over primary backup Endy Chavez. Whether that was due to a simple slump or the recent pain in his back and hip, only Church knows. But he also knows that he has been taking anti-inflammatories for the past five days, rendering any and all excuses null.

So he made no excuses and one significant slide -- which, in turn, prevented the Mets from sliding any further down the standings.

"Hey," Church said. "I got lucky."