ST. LOUIS — The life and times of Rick Ankiel took another wild and woolly turn Thursday night.
Unfortunately for the St. Louis Cardinals, their rookie starter's feral ride set the tone for Game 2 of the National League championship series against the New York Mets, whose 6-5 win gave them a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven NLCS.
The Mets head home merely needing two wins in five games, three at Shea Stadium, to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1986.
Thursday's game, which lasted three hours and 59 minutes, set an NLCS record for longest nine-inning game, eclipsing the 3:48 it took the Dodgers and Expos to play on Oct. 14, 1981.
And you got the feeling it was going to be a long night, what with Ankiel's first pitch of the game sailing over New York leadoff man Timo Perez's head.
Ankiel wouldn't last the first inning, but that didn't matter as New York scored the winning run with the help of two Cardinal errors in the ninth.
Robin Ventura led off the inning with a grounder to first that Will Clark couldn't handle. Benny Agbayani sacrificed, and Ventura was replaced by pinch-runner Joe McEwing.
Jay Payton followed with a sharp single to center that Jim Edmonds, eyeing a possible play at the plate, couldn't field cleanly, the ball bouncing away as McEwing scored.
It was Payton's second game-winning hit of the playoffs.
Met closer Armando Benitez pitched a scoreless ninth to get his second save in as many games and Turk Wendell got the win in an inning of relief work. Cardinal reliever Mike Timlin took the loss.
"The one thing we set our mind to is to never give up," Met second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo said. "Just keep fighting until the end. And tonight, one more time, we proved it. That was a great feeling after Jay got the big hit and we won."
The left-handed Ankiel's almost comedic inability to find the plate lasted a painful 34 pitches, only 14 of which were strikes.
In fact, Ankiel, who set a modern-day record with five wild pitches in an inning of the Cardinals' 7-5 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of their divisional series last week, uncorked five tosses that reached the backstop Thursday.
Included in the mess were two wild pitches, which made Ankiel the third pitcher to unleash two wild pitches in an inning of NLCS play.
The Busch Stadium sellout crowd of 52,250 was not amused. Especially not with the Mets scoring twice in their half of the first inning, which lasted 21 minutes, with only one hit.
"The first inning, well, the first inning was kind of scary," said Alfonzo, who walked and advanced to third on Ankiel's two wild pitches. "This guy, he's a power pitcher and he throws like 90 miles an hour. It was scary to see Timo go down quickly.
"When I came up, I just tried to let him throw it and see what happened."
St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa shouldered the blame for his team playing catch-up all evening long.
"The manager's responsibility is to put guys in the right position," said La Russa, who used 20 players. "I blame myself. I don't blame Rick Ankiel; he's too special."
It was another night of frustration and missed opportunities for St. Louis as the Cardinals outhit the Mets for the second game in a row yet couldn't capitalize.
Edmonds was 0 for 4 and left three runners stranded, two in scoring position.
Edgar Renteria, however, showed up, going three for five with three steals, becoming the fourth player in NLCS history to steal three bases in a game.
Perez's mad dash around the bases helped New York take a two-run lead in the eighth.
The Mets' late-season sparkplug singled with two out, took off on Matt Morris' full-count pitch and hustled home when Alfonzo hit a soft single into shallow right-center. Todd Zeile greeted reliever Dave Veres with an RBI single for a 5-3 lead.
The Cardinals came back to tie it in the bottom half, with a run scoring on John Franco's wild pitch and another on pinch-hitter J.D. Drew's double. After pinch-hitter Mark McGwire was intentionally walked, Wendell struck out Craig Paquette to end the inning.
Heading home with a 2-0 lead would seemingly put a smile on the Mets' faces. Only two NL teams--the 1984 Chicago Cubs and 1985 Dodgers--have failed to move on to the World Series after winning the first two games of a league championship series. And the Cubs and Dodgers won at home before blowing their respective series on the road.
"I don't really believe in momentum," Met Manager Bobby Valentine said. "I believe in character and I believe in people who believe in themselves."