Cardinals tag Wagner, Mets to even series

Billy Wagner served up a homer to So Taguchi.

NEW YORK – The Mets were seven outs away from the commanding lead they felt they deserved, seven outs away from a joyous flight to St. Louis from which they'd wake up grinning with the satisfaction of series momentum.

But those sweet dreams turned to a Friday the 13th nightmare.

Scott Spiezio's two-run triple tied the game in the seventh and St. Louis put up three runs in the ninth against closer Billy Wagner, evening the NLCS at one game apiece with a 9-6 victory at Shea Stadium.

The surprising blow came off the bat of outfielder So Taguchi, who came in as a defensive replacement before battling Wagner in a nine-pitch at-bat to begin the ninth inning, slugging a tie-breaking home run into the left field bullpen.

The Cardinals kept churning against Wagner, who has pitched in all five of the Mets' postseason games, with two more runs crossing the plate before mop-up man Roberto Hernandez finally recorded the last out.

"I let it get away," Wagner said. "Everything I threw, they hit, pretty much. You're going to have those days. I can't explain it. … We played well enough. I just didn't pitch up to standards. It's just one of those nights you have to grin and bear it, and wait for the next opportunity."

Even before Wagner struggled and Taguchi surprised – the 37-year-old had just two home runs in 316 at-bats this year, but has now homered twice in the postseason - this was New York's game to lose.

Challenged by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, the Mets were up to the task, battering the ace for five runs in five innings, including a pair of home runs and four RBI from slugger Carlos Delgado – invoking the name of Rusty Staub and the 1973 NLCS from the history books.

And Jose Reyes continued to come together, shaking off the jitters of his first post-season – just as Randolph predicted before Friday's game. He stroked his second run-scoring hit of the contest in the second, slicing a RBI single that brought home Chavez, who doubled off the Cards' ace.

"I think we proved to a lot of people that we can handle the best," David Wright said. "And Chris Carpenter is the best."

That message would have seemed much stronger if not for the twist of events late in the game.

Rookie John Maine lasted four innings in his second postseason start, allowing a two-run double to Yadier Molina in the second inning and a two-run homer in the third.

After Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano relieved, the Mets turned a 6-4 lead over to Guillermo Mota for the seventh inning, boosted after cracking through against Josh Hancock of St. Louis' bullpen – which had compiled 16 straight scoreless innings to that point – when Lo Duca doubled home Reyes.

Mota seemed to be cruising through the seventh before allowing a two-out single to Pujols, the slugger's first hit of the series. Edmonds walked and then Spiezio – filling in for the slumping Rolen – blasted a shot to right field that Shawn Green leapt and deflected, bouncing off the wall for a two-run triple.

The play was briefly debated as a possible three-run homer, but long after the umpires had converged and decided against changing the call, some within the Mets were still contemplating the pitch selection.

Catcher Paul Lo Duca had asked for another change-up, which made Spiezio look bad on the first two pitches of the at-bat, but instead Mota served up a fastball, one Spiezio was quite capable of handling.

"It was one of those situations where I was thinking in my head more a change-up than a fastball, and I was still able to put the meat of the bat on it," Spiezio said.

"Wrong guy, wrong moment," Mota said.

Lo Duca wasn't in the mood to discuss the pitch after the game, snapping, "Next question." Meanwhile, Green said he believed – had he made the catch – it would have been one of the highlights of his career, but there wasn't a whole lot he could have done differently to record the out.

"I thought I had it timed right with the jump," Green said. "The only thing that didn't happen was that the ball didn't go in the glove."

Headed off to St. Louis and without an off-day, thanks to the rainout that preceded Game 1, the Mets' bullpen – one of the huge strengths of this season – is now a concern.

Maine needed 88 pitches – just one fewer than Tom Glavine used to coast through seven innings in Game 1 – to get through four innings, and New York used seven relievers to finish Game 2, with Aaron Heilman tossing 1 1/3 innings and Wagner getting only two outs in the ninth before Hernandez made his NLCS debut.

"Our bullpen is resilient and strong," Randolph said. "Most pitchers have gone that many innings many times. This time of year, everyone is ready to go. Everybody's ready to take the ball and my guys love to pitch, so do what you've got to do."

Randolph's comforting words aside, after months of coasting on cruise control, the Mets' safety net is gone. There are no double-digit cushions to point to in the NL East.

The cold reality is that the series could have been New York 2, St. Louis 0; if you ask some Mets, it should have been. No one would dare say so, but something seemed taken from the Mets' clubhouse Friday night, readable in deep breaths and slumped shoulders.

"We felt like it was our game," Green said. "We had it."

But they couldn't keep it. Wright called it a lost opportunity and recommended the Mets sleep fast, shake it off, and get ready. Three more wins to go before that ultimate October dream would start.

"Obviously, we wanted this one," Wright said. "And we can't do anything about it now."

Contact Inside Pitch's Bryan Hoch at metsinsidepitch@aol.com.

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