October 11: As the Mets traveled to St. Louis to begin the NLCS, they found themselves in the unusual position of not being the underdog. In every postseason series they'd played the last two seasons, they were not favored to win (at least not by many). But after defeating the Giants, owners of the best record in the NL, they were now the team to beat. The Mets' pitching--starters and bullpen--seemed to give them a big advantage over St. Louis.
This may have been a little unfair to the Cardinals, who finished one game better than the Mets in 2000 with a powerful lineup that steamrolled opponents all season long. They also had two aces at the head of their rotation: Darryl Kile, a 20-game winner who regained his form after some difficult years in Colorado, and rookie sensation Rick Ankiel. They'd completely demolished the Braves in the NLDS, outplaying them in every aspect of the game.
Then again, the Cardinals appearing the playoffs were not exactly the same Cardinals who won the NL Central. After starting the season on another insane home run pace, Mark McGwire had been sidelined since mid-year with knee troubles. He'd returned to part-time duty in September and been well enough to pinch hit during the series against Atlanta, hitting a home run in game two.
Unfortunately, he could do more than hit. If he ever reached base on something other than a long ball, he needed to be pinch run for immediately ("glorified Manny Mota duties," in his words), thus complicating the bench situation for Tony La Russa. Throughout the series, the manager would be haunted by the question of if and when to use his not-so-secret weapon, and second guessed on his every appearance (and especially non-appearance).
Will Clark, a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles, took over at first base and performed beyond anyone's wildest expectations. In a mere 171 at bats for the Cardinals, he hit .345 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs. But the Cardinals' woes were not limited to replacing McGwire.
Mike Matheny, their Gold Glove catcher, sustained an odd injury--he sliced his hand open on a hunting knife he'd just received as a birthday present. The wound required surgery and knocked him out of the playoffs completely. Back issues for catcher Carlos Hernandez forced La Russa to carry three backstops on his bench (Eli Marrero and Rick Wilkins the two others). Starter Garrett Stephenson had to leave the clincher against the Braves in the fourth inning with elbow tendinitis and would not be available for the NLCS. And Rick Ankiel turned in a terrible start in game one of the division series, unleashing a record five wild pitches and getting pulled in the third inning. How he would react to another pressure-packed start was anyone's guess.
It's also important to remember that Tony La Russa, for all his success, still had a somewhat tenuous relationship with St. Louis. Some fans and local press still didn't appreciate his brand of managing (some might say overmanaging). He led the Cardinals to the NLCS in 1996, and they took a 3-1 lead in that series, only to lose the last three games (two of them utter blowouts). He'd also been forced to platoon Ozzie Smith in the twilight of his career, an unenviable task, which earned him some ugly words from both the shortstop and another St. Louis manager, Whitey Herzog.
If some doubted if La Russa could ever get over the hump, La Russa didn't. "This is a real tight ball club, as tight as any I've ever been around," he said. "These guys have a lot of support for each other. No one is carried away with being the go-to guy."
For all their injuries, the Cardinals still had a formidable lineup, with Clark, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina, Fernando Tatis, J.D. Drew, and MVP candidate Jim Edmonds. The flashy center fielder might have become a Met in the offseason if GM Steve Phillips hadn't balked at the Angels' asking price (Anaheim GM Bill Stoneman wanted both Octavio Dotel and Grant Roberts, the Mets' two best pitching prospects). Phillips asked for a counter offer but never received one, and as the Mets left for Tokyo, Edmonds was shipped to St. Louis.
The matchup seemed an ideal one. The enthusiastic crowds at Shea and Busch Stadiums would make for much better atmospheres--and TV--than the apathetic non-sellouts of Turner Field. The two teams had played some close, tight games throughout the year; the Mets took the first seven games between them, then the Cardinals swept a series at Busch Stadium, winning in walkoff fashion each time.
The series brought back memories of the Mets-Cardinals rivalry of the 1980s, which Keith Olbermann recounted in great detail during the FOX pregame show (yes, Keith Olbermann once worked for FOX). Back then, New York and St. Louis fought tooth and nail for the NL East each year, particularly in 1985 and 1987, when the division title wasn't decided until the last week of the season. Cardinals fans routinely referred to the Mets as Pond Scum (an appellation supposedly first affixed to them by David Letterman). The rivalry had died down in the early 90s, when both teams fell on hard times, then were placed in different divisions for relaignment in 1995.
Regardless of who they favored, most observers thought this would be a good series. Keith Hernandez--allegiances torn between two of his former clubs--thought it would go seven games. FOX analyst Steve Lyons said it would "be a great one" and predicted the NLCS would last at least six games.
The players agreed. Ex-Cardinal Todd Zeile (booed heartily each time he returned to St. Louis) said, "I think it makes for a good media series and a very well-matched NLCS." Joe McEwing, another ex-Card, said, "It's going to be a thrill to go back there." Bobby Valentine looked forward to playing in St. Louis. "I think the crowd is something that adds to the emotion of a game," he said. "I think the crowd here is much more supportive than the crowd in Atlanta and so there might be some more emotion here in this series once you get playing it."
There was even a slight war of words before the series began. When a few Mets expressed "relief" that they were playing the Cardinals instead of the Braves, some construed it as a slap in the face to St. Louis. "People said the World Series goes through Atlanta," Jim Edmonds groused, "but those people have to realize they have to come to us now. We don't have to go to anyone."
With many scribes already dreaming of a Subway Series, the Cardinals felt understandably snubbed. When asked how he would deal with the Mets' tough left-handed pitchers, Edmonds countered, "How good is Glavine?" He'd terrorized the Braves' southpaw--and everyone else Atlanta sent to the mound--so there was no reason to think he couldn't do the same thing against New York.
Because of Derek Bell's season-ending injury, the Mets were allowed to add one more player to their roster for the NLCS. Some thought they might go with Pat Mahomes to shore up their bullpen, but the call went to pinch hitter Matt Franco instead.
There were some other sporting events going on this evening: the second Presidential Debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, to which Joe Buck and Tim McCarver alluded throughout the broadcast. During the game, FOX might have brought back some painful memories when they showed footage from Bobby Valentine's days managing the Texas Rangers, and the 1992 press conference held when Bush (then owner of the Rangers) relieved Valentine of his duties.
Darryl Kile, the ace of the staff, took the mound for the Cardinals. He had an excellent 2000 season, rebounding from two forgettable years in Colorado. ("He's just happy to be back at sea level," McCarver guessed.) Due to all the injuries that befell the pitching staff, Tony La Russa was seriously considering pitching Darryl Kile on short rest in game four and, if the series went that far, game seven. Presumably, La Russa hoped the lineup could get Kile an early, large lead in this game, so he could yank him with a reasonable pitch count. Unfortunately for him, the Mets did not comply with these wishes.
To lead off the game, Timo Perez rocketed a 2-2 fastball into the right field corner for a standup double. A pitch to Edgardo Alfonzo squirted away from the catcher, just far enough for Perez to scramble to third. Considering all of Fonzie's huge hits in the NLDS, Kile pitched carefully to the second baseman and eventually walked him to bring up Mike Piazza. The catcher had been ice cold against the Giants, but he waited on Kile's first pitch (a curve) and yanked it just fair down the left field line. Timo trotted home easily and Fonzie moved all the way to third.
Amazingly, it marked Piazza's first RBI of the postseason, and the good swing he put on the ball was a great sign for the Mets. In the dugout, bench coach John Stearns was ecstatic. "The Monster is out of the cage!" he yelled repeatedly. The outburst was broadcast during FOX's coverage. Stearns later explained that "Monster" was Piazza's clubhouse nickname.
While The Monster stood on second, Robin Ventura swung at the first pitch he saw, lofting it deep enough for a sac fly. Just like that, the Mets were up 2-0. Joe Buck noted how quiet the Busch crowd was, despite being in full throat just before first pitch. "At no point in the series against the Braves did this occur," he said. Kile limited the damage by striking out Todd Zeile looking, then getting a groundout to shortstop from Benny Agbayani, but the Mets had already established a pattern that would play itself out through the rest of the series: lead early and hang on.
Mike Hampton took the hill for the Mets. Before the series, there was again some debate about the order of the starters, but Bobby Valentine ultimately decided on the exact same rotation he'd used in against the Giants: Hampton, followed by Al Leiter, Rick Reed, and Bobby Jones. To combat Hampton's power over lefties, Tony LaRussa penciled in an alternating right-left lineup.
Before the series began, Hampton insisted he'd put his struggles in game one of the division series behind him. But it didn't look like it in the bottom of the first, as he fell behind each hitter he faced. Edgar Renteria bounced a one-out single up the middle to get things started. Alfonzo made a great play on a Jim Edmonds grounder and got the force at second, but Eric Davis flared a single into shallow center to put runners at the corners, and Will Clark worked a walk to load the bases. The Busch crowd was back into the game, but light hitting catcher Carlos Hernandez put them right out of it when he swung at a sinker and shot a ground ball right to second base for a force out, ending the threat.
Though the Cardinals had bypassed a prime opportunity to get right back into the game, it just seemed like a matter of time before their powerful lineup broke through. It never did. Hampton was not overpowering ("It wasn't pretty," he'd say after the game), but over seven innings he kept St. Louis off balance and, most importantly, off the board. He learned his lesson from the first inning, and from then on consistently got ahead in the count, enabling him to throw unhittable breaking pitches out of the strike zone. He bent, but never broke.
Over the next few innings he'd flirt with danger, but wriggle out of it each time. With two outs in the bottom of the second, he got ahead of Kile 1-2, then lost him to a walk, but got a weak flyout to center from Vina to make the free pass harmless. After giving up a one-out single to Edmonds in the third and throwing a pitch in the dirt that moved him to second base (scored a wild pitch, though a ball Piazza could've blocked it better), Hampton struck out Eric Davis on a nasty fastball that picked off the inside corner, then got Will Clark to ground out to first. In the fourth, he finally managed to retire the Cardinals in order (the only time all night he'd be able to do so).
Darryl Kile settled in after his rough first inning. In the second, third, and fourth, the only base runner he allowed was a Mike Piazza single. But the Mets struck again in the top of the fifth, beginning with a one-out infield single by Hampton (aided by a low throw to first that Will Clark couldn't handle). Kile made a great play on a Timo Perez chopper near the mound, getting the out at first as Hampton moved to second, and it looked like Kile might escape danger.
With first base open, Buck and McCarver discussed the possibility of pitching around Edgardo Alfonzo, or even issuing an intentional walk. Buck mentioned that some considered Fonzie "the best ballplayer in the city of New York," and McCarver agreed with that assessment. But with Piazza up on deck, Kile went after the second baseman, and he rifled a single between short and third base. Hampton came around to score, expanding the Mets' lead to 3-0.
The Mets' bats went back into hibernation against Kile in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, but it seemed he'd already given up too many runs, considering his teammates' inability to convert. The Cardinals threatened in each of the next three innings, and each time Hampton found a way to silence them. In the bottom of the fifth, Fernando Vina hit a one-out single to left, where the ball scooted past Benny Agbayani's glove, allowing him to reach second. Hampton bore down and induced a groundout to shortstop from Edgar Renteria, then struck out Edmonds on a slider in the dirt.
With one out in the sixth, Will Clark belted a ball off the fence in the right field corner for a double, but Hampton stranded him there with grounders from Carlos Hernandez and J.D. Drew. "So far the Cardinals are like a football team that's only good between the 20 and the 20," McCarver said. "They can't punch it in."
All of the Cardinals' potential rallies had occurred with at least one out, but they finally managed to get a leadoff man on when Placido Polanco bounced a single up the middle to start the bottom of the seventh. Hampton struck out Fernando Tatis (pinch hitting for Kile) for the first out, but got distracted trying to keep Polanco close at first and walked Fernando Vina to put another man in scoring position and bring the tying run to the plate.
Tony La Russa might have considered using his Mark McGwire trump card, if he didn't have two of his better hitters coming up, but his decision to stick with them did not pan out. Edgar Renteria flew out deep to right field for the second out as Polanco tagged up and moved to third, bringing up Edmonds in a huge spot. He swung at Hampton's first pitch and sent a towering shot to the opposite field. At first, it looked like Benny Agbayani might have trouble with the ball as it swirled in the wind, but the left fielder stuck with it and caught it just shy of the outfield wall for out number three.
"I think everybody took a deep breath after that catch,'' Benny said later. ''Some of the guys in the dugout said, 'You made us nervous there.'"
After the Mets went quietly against reliever Mike James in the top of the eighth, John Franco relieved Hampton in the bottom half. He caught Eric Davis looking on a pitch very similar to the one Hampton froze him on, then got Will Clark to line out to center field. Carlos Hernandez shot a single just past Ventura's glove, which brought up another key at bat. Shawon Dunston (pinch hitting for J.D. Drew) was up next, followed by the pitcher's spot. If Franco couldn't retire him, McGwire would surely pinch hit next as the tying run. FOX's cameras showed McGwire in the dugout tunnel, helmet on and bat in hand, and Armando Benitez warmed up in the bullpen, preparing to face him. The Busch stands, which hadn't had much to cheer about, roared in anticipation of a McGwire sighting. "How many Mets fans do you think are pacing in front of their television sets?" McCarver wondered.
The confrontation was not to be. Dunston flew out to left field for the third out. Another crisis averted.
After a few innings of offensive dormancy, the Mets made sure their lead was McGwire-proof in the top of the ninth. Leadoff hitter Todd Zeile rocketed a ball just over Dunston's glove and into the Mets bullpen for a home run. After an Agbayani single, Jay Payton swung at the first pitch he saw and drove it down the left field line for a home run of his own to put the Mets up 6-0, and send many of the Cardinals fans scurrying for the exits.
Mike James' went up and in to the next batter, Mike Bordick, hitting him on the right thumb. It looked rather suspicious, and both Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine later said they thought the hit-by-pitch was intentional. ("You mean, do I think they took the smallest guy in our lineup, and decided to throw at him? I doubt it," Valentine said after the game, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "He sure picked on the big guys, didn't he?") James didn't offer an explanation, brushing off reporters after the game. Bordick's status for game two was uncertain.
Jason Christiansen relieved James and kept the deficit at 6-0, but it was more than enough. The game got a tad too interesting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, when Kurt Abbott (playing shortstop for the injured Bordick) bounced a low throw to first that allowed a run to score, and Timo Perez misjudged a line drive by Jim Edmonds that bounced past his glove, leading to a second run. (Though unearned, they were the first runs allowed by any Mets pitcher in the last 25 innings.) Armando Benitez stopped the bleeding there with a groundout from Eric Davis, and the Mets had taken the first game of this series, 6-2.
The Cardinals had actually outhit the Mets, but in the only measurement that mattered--runs--they were beaten. "They had timely hitting," Jim Edmonds lamented, "and we didn't." Even with a sloppy ninth inning, Mets pitching held St. Louis hitless with men in scoring position in 13 chances.
It was not exactly one for the ages, but it was a win nonetheless. With the first game on their side of the ledger, and Al Leiter ready to take the mound in game two, the Mets had set things up nicely for the rest of this series. "I would say this puts the Mets right in the driver's seat," McCarver said after the last out had finally been recorded. Each of the last seven teams to win the first game of the NLCS had gone on to win the pennant.
Back in New York, the Yankees were shut out by Freddy Garcia and the Mariners in game one of the ALCS, and looked like they might do the same in game two, as they trailed 1-0 going into the bottom of the eighth, despite another brilliant outing from Orlando Hernandez. But a Bernie Williams RBI single evened things up and opened the floodgates. Six more runs and 41 minutes later, the Yankees had a 7-1 win, evening up the series as it headed out west to Seattle.