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NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Cardinals Change for Better

Pujols delivers against Glavine, and Weaver outpitches the Mets' veteran in a 4-2 victory that puts St. Louis one win from World Series.

October 18, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Albert Pujols had his corroboration, Jeff Weaver had himself another sturdy start, Tony La Russa enlightened the playoff audience again and the St. Louis Cardinals are one victory -- in New York -- away from their second World Series appearance in three years.

The 83-win Cardinals, the pitching-thin Cardinals, the overmatched Cardinals lead the National League Championship Series, three games to two, after their taut, 4-2 win over the New York Mets on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

Already, Cardinals reliever Adam Wainwright said, "It's a lot better than anyone thought we'd do. We're pretty confident right now."

Game 6 is tonight at Shea Stadium. The Cardinals will pitch their ace, Chris Carpenter, and they will follow him in Game 7, if they have to, with Jeff Suppan, who pitched eight shutout innings Saturday night.

The Mets, on the other hand, will make do with John Maine and either Darren Oliver or Steve Trachsel. It would appear they'd better bring their bats.

"That's a lot of conjecture for what may be," said Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson, sensing a congratulatory theme in the questions. "By no means are we thinking it's all done."

The Cardinals took a giant step toward done though.

Weaver continued his resurrection, giving up two runs in six innings. In the series, the right-hander has yielded four in 11 2/3 innings. In the postseason, four in 16 2/3 .

La Russa called Weaver's six innings "the biggest key to our win." Said Weaver: "I'm just happy and fortunate to be in this situation right now."

Pujols, without a home run or an RBI in the NLCS and restricted by a sore right hamstring, guessed right on a Tom Glavine changeup in the fourth inning and popped it over the left-field fence. It brought the Cardinals to within 2-1 of the Mets, and then they scored again in the fourth, once in the fifth and again in the sixth. Glavine, without the 12 runs of support the Mets had provided Oliver Perez two nights before, fatigued and was gone without getting an out in the fifth.

A brooding figure for a week, Pujols was bright-eyed and cooperative afterward, praising Glavine as a skilled technician and gamer.

"I think we had a good game plan," Pujols said. "We made him work and we went out there and performed. We went the other way. He got the ball up and we took advantage.

"With a guy like that, you don't try to overpower him."

Indeed, Glavine threw an uncommon 36 pitches in the fourth inning after pitching to only 10 Cardinals over the first three innings.

It was the fourth inning when Glavine's run of scoreless playoff innings ended at 16. While that's a record for a pitcher 40 years or older, it might not be Glavine's beyond Saturday, when Kenny Rogers presumably takes the ball for the Detroit Tigers against one of these teams. Rogers, at 41, is standing on 15 consecutive scoreless innings, and will have had plenty of rest.

Fittingly, all things considered, Glavine's second start of the series began to rattle during a fourth-inning matchup against Pujols, and ended after a fifth-inning intentional walk of Pujols.

It was the perhaps frustrated -- and absolutely ungracious -- Pujols who, after Glavine's seven shutout innings in Game 1, stated, "He wasn't good. He wasn't good at all."

New York raged, Pujols moped and Glavine, with the poise of a man who has now seen a record 35 postseason starts, shrugged and allowed Pujols his opinion.

Five days later, Glavine opened as he had in New York, feathering changeups around his 85-mph fastball, flicking the corners with pitches that straddled the edges of the strike zone.

He picked up two runs in the top of the fourth, when Jose Valentin doubled against Weaver. La Russa had seen this before.

"We all had visions of getting shut out again by Mr. Glavine," he said. "He was working us over."

Until then, Cardinals hitters were again front-footing Glavine's changeups. And then Pujols hit one 371 feet. The Cardinals followed along. Four more hitters reached base and another run scored.

And when David Eckstein singled to start the fifth and Preston Wilson doubled him home, Mets Manager Willie Randolph had Glavine walk Pujols, then replaced him with Chad Bradford.

The Cardinals, then, are at the brink of the World Series, despite -- or because of -- two against-the-book decisions that fell for La Russa.

First, rookie Chris Duncan, who batted .170 against left-handers in the regular season, pinch hit in the sixth inning and homered against left-hander Pedro Feliciano for the Cardinals' fourth run.

Then, with two runners in scoring position, a two-run lead and the switch-hitting Valentin batting, La Russa replaced left-hander Randy Flores with right-hander Adam Wainwright. Valentin batted .219 against lefties, and .288 with far more power against righties. And then Valentin struck out looking at a gorgeous 2-and-2 curveball.

Wainwright then pitched an easy ninth, and, well, here they are.

tim.brown@latimes.com

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