Mets push series to limit with Game 6 win

Jose Reyes was 3-for-4 with two runs and a homer.

NEW YORK – The Mets heard the whispers, knew that the so-called analysts and experts wouldn't give them much of a chance to fight out of the corner they'd backed into.

But within the four walls of the clubhouse at Shea Stadium, they didn't believe a word of it. Behind a raucous crowd of 56,324, the Mets came out swinging, again hitting around ace Chris Carpenter and downing the Cardinals in Game 6, 4-2.

"I looked in the stands a couple of times and it looked like a college student cheering section," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "I mean, people didn't sit down for the whole game. That's an unbelievable feeling. When something goes your way, it's electric."

Leadoff man Jose Reyes set the tone for a wild night at Shea by slugging a leadoff home run among his three hits, and rookie John Maine kept the Cardinals quiet with 5 1/3 scoreless innings.

The Mets are back to even, tied 3-3 in a National League Championship Series that will end in a pivotal Game 7 Thursday. A victory would send the Mets back to the World Series for the first time since 2000.

The Mets ensured that any disappointment from their series at St. Louis would be erased at Shea, as Reyes opened the bottom of the first inning by slugging Carpenter's third pitch over the wall in right field.

"My teammates told me today, I have to get on base," Reyes said. "I said, if I get on base, something good is going to happen."

The blast was Reyes' first career postseason home run and the fourth in Mets history, joining such memorable blasts as Tommie Agee (Game 3, 1969 World Series), Wayne Garrett (Game 3, 1973 World Series) and Lenny Dykstra (Game 3, 1986 World Series).

Reyes has now hit in five straight postseason games (9-for-23, .391) and in seven of nine this October. He also finally stole his first base of the NLCS in the third inning, and then just to reinforce the point, swiped another one in the seventh.

"He's our igniter," David Wright said. "He makes us go. Where Jose goes, we go."

But to make Reyes' shot truly count, the Mets needed a solid performance from Maine, a 25-year-old rookie who hadn't lasted more than 4 1/3 innings in his two previous playoff starts.

"I wasn't that nervous," Maine said. "I knew what I had to do. If I could get a couple innings, it was all right."

Maine's control wasn't quite there, as he worked deep counts against most Cardinals batters and carefully pitched to the outside corner, but he showed a knack for working his way out of trouble, stranding five men through the first three innings.

Maine induced Scott Rolen to fly out ending the first, leaving the bases loaded, then struck out Juan Encarnacion with two aboard in the third.

"The thing I love about him," Mets manager Willie Randolph said, "is he didn't really waver too much. As he's pitched for us and been here, he's gotten stronger and stronger to execute his pitches and stay in his rhythm."

Facing Carpenter, the defending NL Cy Young Award winner, the Mets extended their lead to two runs in the fourth. Carlos Beltran opened the inning with a single, moved up on David Wright's hit to shallow center, and scored on Shawn Green's shot through the left side of the infield.

With 16 outs recorded on what Wright termed "the race to 27 outs," Maine was lifted with one out in the sixth inning, having thrown 98 pitches in his longest effort of the postseason. Maine allowed just two hits but walked four, striking out five.

"He's stepped up huge for us this year," Wright said of Maine. "It's very admirable for him to come up and fill in for Pedro Martinez and fill in for El Duque the way he has. It's something special, especially for a rookie, but he has no fear. He's not scared one bit. He wants the ball and he wants to challenge hitters. That's what you want, come playoff time – a guy who's not scared to fail."

"He's stepped up to the challenge many times," Randolph said. "I've challenged him many times and he's just coming more and more into his own."

One night after Cardinals manager Tony La Russa cashed a gamble by sending up left-handed hitting Chris Duncan to face lefty Pedro Feliciano in Game 5, Randolph reversed the logic in the seventh inning of Game 6.

With Ronnie Belliard leading off the inning with a single against reliever Chad Bradford – St. Louis' first hit since Albert Pujols in the first inning – Randolph thought about bringing in Feliciano as Duncan again was summoned as a one-out pinch-hitter.

Instead, Randolph rolled the dice with right-hander Guillermo Mota, who induced Duncan to bounce into an inning-ending double play.

Even so, two runs wasn't quite the cushion the Mets desired, and they got their much-needed insurance runs in the seventh against a familiar face, with Lo Duca cashing a two-run, two-out single to center off Braden Looper, bringing home Reyes and pinch-hitter Michael Tucker.

"Lo Duca has been one of our most clutch hitters all year," Randolph said. "He's been great and been able to put the ball in play in a tough spot. It's clutch knowing that he's out there and great knowing he's up to the challenge."

Lo Duca has been quietly slowed by a torn ligament in his right thumb that will require surgery after the season, but said the contributing hit helped restore some of his confidence.

"It's an awesome feeling, because I haven't really hit too many balls on the barrel lately," Lo Duca said. "I felt in St. Louis I swung the bat real good and hit a couple balls right at people. You come up in a big situation and it's a good feeling for me, gave me some confidence. It doesn't matter how long you've been playing this game, you always need more confidence."

The runs came in handy because, after Aaron Heilman spun a scoreless eighth inning, Billy Wagner struggled in the ninth, taking full advantage of the four-run lead in a non-save situation.

Wagner surrendered a hard-hit single to Juan Encarnacion and a double to Scott Rolen before finally recording the first two outs, but then So Taguchi – Wagner's old nemesis from NLCS Game 2 – again displayed his mastery, bashing a two-run double down the left field line to close St. Louis within two runs.

Wagner settled in and induced scrappy leadoff man David Eckstein – representing the tying run – to ground to second baseman Jose Valentin, who scooped and fired on to Carlos Delgado, ensuring the lights will stay on at Shea Stadium for at least one more night.

"That's what makes it so exciting, and so hard to predict what's going to happen," Tom Glavine said in a cautiously-celebratory Mets clubhouse. "I'm sure there's not many experts out there who gave us a chance to win tonight."

Before the game, Randolph announced that he would use Oliver Perez, not Darren Oliver or Steve Trachsel, as the Mets' Game 7 starter. Asked why, Randolph said, "Because I like him."

Perez, perhaps the unlikeliest bet as a Game 7 starter after going 3-13 during the regular season, displayed a cool confidence when asked about the frenzy that surely will come with pitching in a game that would get his team to the World Series.

"We have to look at tomorrow and just follow the game plan," Perez said.

Whatever the scenario, the Mets are ready to make something memorable happen. Since 1985, the home team is 5-2 in NLCS Game 7s, and four of those games ended in shutouts.

Not that anyone is expecting that, but …

"You just hope it's something that's significant and something you look back on," Randolph said, "maybe 20 or 30 years from now and be really proud of. We're trying to find our own little niche and make our own little piece of history. Everybody's going to be ready to go."

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