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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS | CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Cardinals' Long Shot Wins It in Ninth, 9-6

October 14, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Shea Stadium went quiet late Friday night, enough to hear So Taguchi pad around the bases in the ninth inning, enough to hear Billy Wagner's chin hit his chest, enough to hear the National League Championship Series change course.

And then Wagner was booed from the field.

The St. Louis Cardinals scored three runs in the ninth inning, the first on Taguchi's leadoff home run and all off the Mets' vaunted closer, and defeated the New York Mets, 9-6, to split the first two games of the NLCS.

The series resumes tonight with the first of three games in St. Louis.

"Going back 0-2, even though we're going home," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said, "would have been a tough situation."

That the Cardinals can thank Taguchi is testament to the turns and vagaries of a game that was played over nearly four hours.

Taguchi had never had a hit against Wagner, in five career at-bats. Taguchi had hit two home runs in 316 regular-season at-bats, and now has two in two playoff at-bats.

The Mets had not lost in this postseason, had chased the Cardinals' ace, Chris Carpenter, after five innings, and got two more home runs from clean-up hitter Carlos Delgado.

And, still, it was their ballpark that went silent, their advantage that disappeared over the left-field fence, and their closer who stood stone-faced in the post-game clubhouse, trying to find a reasonable explanation.

"It's just one of those nights," Wagner said. "Can't explain it. I made some good pitches. I didn't make the best to Taguchi."

La Russa saw Wagner coming, swapped the right-handed-hitting Taguchi for left-handed-hitting Duncan in left field in the bottom of the eighth, then watched Taguchi work Wagner for nine pitches.

The fastball that arrived last was up in the strike zone, few of its kind having escaped hitters from either side. Taguchi pulled it, and later admitted he had expected nothing like the end result.

"I couldn't recognize what happened," he said. "So, I didn't know what to do. So, I just run."

The Cardinals followed with three more hits, two more runs, and they had taken a game in which the Mets had led, 3-0, then 4-2, then 6-4. In the ninth, Albert Pujols would follow Taguchi, then Jim Edmonds, who had homered in the third, then Scott Spiezio, who had tripled home two runs two innings before.

But, it was Taguchi who struck the winning blow, making a winner of reliever Josh Kinney, plucked from an independent league five years ago.

"I can't explain," Taguchi said, grinning and laughing at his own expense. "Who expects I hit home run? Maybe nobody? Not even me."

Wagner shrugged and tried again.

"It was up like I wanted, but it just kind of ran over the plate," he said. "Thrown that pitch a million times. Tonight, it didn't work out."

The Mets' real hope was for their starter, John Maine, to pitch like Carpenter, the 2005 Cy Young Award winner, just for a night.

They were pleasantly surprised to find that Carpenter would pitch like Maine, which should have worked just as well.

At the end of a two-day debate over whether he should pitch in Game 2 on regular rest or Game 3 in St. Louis (he was far better in the regular season at Busch Stadium and on five days' rest), Carpenter spent five trying innings.

A ground-ball pitcher his entire career, and never more so than the past regular season, Carpenter worked high in the strike zone over 92 pitches.

Most lacked the familiar downward bite of Carpenter's signature pitches. Delgado rode two fastballs over the left and left-center field fences, and of the Mets' 15 outs against Carpenter, 11 were in the air. Carpenter, who won 16 games this season and 21 last, required 92 pitches for five innings. He gave up five runs, walked four and hit a batter.

Maine, the reedy right-hander who'd won six games in 15 starts for the rotation-impaired Mets in the regular season, survived four innings. In them, he gave up only two hits -- one a two-run home run to Edmonds -- but walked five, two of which scored.

So, the NLCS became the series many expected.

That is, nothing at all like the Mets' 2-0 victory in Game 1, when the pitchers were precise and the hitters generally defensive.

"Well," Mets Manager Willie Randolph said, "we've had bigger challenges than this."

tim.brown@latimes.com

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