October 12: As game two began, the Mets and Cardinals were a study in contrasts. The Mets seemed loose and confident, having won the first game and sending Al Leiter, an experienced big-game pitcher, to the mound in game two. The Cardinals, on the other hand, had plenty of reason to be nervous. Their powerful lineup had been held in check, going 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Darryl Kile was not only the Cards' best pitcher, but also their only starter without any sort of question marks, and he'd gone down in defeat. He was supposed to be a sure thing. The rest of their rotation was anything but, particularly their game two starter.
When Rick Ankiel began his first full season on the mound in 2000, he quickly became a sensation not seen for a rookie pitcher in a long time, and not seen again until the Stephen Strasberg mania of summer 2010. The young lefty had a blazing fastball and a wicked curveball. He could seemingly strike out batters at will (194 Ks that season) and owned the highest strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate in the regular season for anyone not named Randy Johnson. On WFAN Radio, Gary Cohen talked about Ankiel having "Sandy Koufax-like stuff," and though such comparisons are usually not made lightly, he was not the only person to reach that conclusion.
The young southpaw could be wild, however. He walked 90 batters and tossed 12 wild pitches in the regular season. Those were both rather large tallies, but even so, nobody suspected what ensued in game one of the division series against the Braves. After the Cardinals gave Ankiel a 6-0 lead by unexpectedly pounding Greg Maddux, he suddenly lost his control altogether. In the third inning, he uncorked an astounding five wild pitches--something no one had ever done before, regular or postseason. What made the meltdown even more bizarre is the fact that Ankiel was still able to throw his curveball for strikes; his fastball was the pitch that suddenly lost its way. Tony La Russa pulled him before things got any worse, and the powerful St. Louis lineup bashed its way to a win.
Though Ankiel would not fare well in this outing, as it turned out, there would be plenty bad performances to go around. It's ironic that the first team Tony La Russa ever led to the playoffs--the 1983 Chicago White Sox--had as their rallying cry "Win Ugly!", because whoever won this game would have a rather unsightly victory on their hands.Bobby Valentine opted for a lineup very similar to the one fielded in game one, with Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile switching spots (fourth and fifth, respectively), and Kurt Abbott filling in for Mike Bordick, still smarting from getting hit by a Mike James pitch the night before. La Russa was furious that Mets GM Steve Phillips accused James of intentionally hitting the shortstop. "That's impossible, that he could be so stupid," he growled (clearly he did not know Phillips too well). "That's bullshit. He ought to be ashamed of himself." Bordick had played for La Russa in Oakland, and spoke highly of him during an in-game interview in game one, going so far as to call him his favorite manager. The feeling was mutual, reportedly, which may have explained why the accusation so angered La Russa.
For his part, La Russa made no concessions to Al Leiter's power over lefties, a decision that baffled Gary Cohen throughout the radio broadcast. His lineup contained five left-handed batters (including Ankiel), and for some curious reason decided not to start Eric Davis, a right-handed bat with some good numbers against Leiter. Eli Marrero started behind the plate. Carlos Hernandez had some back issues that would require surgery in the off season, and considering the wildness of Ankiel, La Russa was wary of Hernandez injuring himself even further.
The Busch Stadium crowd (which included vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney) was loud and wild just before first pitch, hoping to will a win for the Cardinals and instill some confidence in Ankiel. But a collective gasp went out during the Ankiel's first pitch: a fastball that made Timo Perez hit the deck to avoid getting hit in the head. It was clearly not a purpose pitch, but one he had no control of. During the first at bat of the game, Ankiel wavered between offerings well out of zone--one of which sailed past the catcher--and well-placed breaking pitches, going full to Timo, then getting a called strike three. La Russa was seen exhaling (sightly) in the dugout.
When Ankiel threw another called strike to start off Edgardo Alfonzo's at bat, then got a swing and a miss to get ahead 1-2, the crowd had some hope that he might find his way. "Maybe he's going to settle in here." Bob Murphy wondered. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Ankiel uncorked another pitch all the way to the backstop. Unnerved, Ankiel fell behind Alfonzo and walked him. "I think Tony LaRussa would be very happy if Rick Ankiel can give him five, maybe six good innings," Cohen surmised. "Ankiel has rarely carried his stuff much beyond that, but he can be so dominant early in games that La Russa is hoping he can shut the Mets down for a few innings."
That outcome seemed more and more unlikely with each pitch. Ankiel's first offering to Mike Piazza was well beyond Marrero's reach, moving Alfonzo up to second base. It was the first official wild pitch on his record, though he'd already thrown four pitches past the catcher. Will Clark pulled aside the lefty and put his arm around him in an attempt to settle him down, but Ankiel walked Piazza, with ball four coming on yet another wild pitch that allowed Alfonzo to scurry to third. Pitching coach Dave Duncan finally ran out to the mound to try and get Ankiel righted, and quick.
Initially, Ankiel seemed to dial down his fastball to gain greater control, but without the desired results. He went full to Todd Zeile (the fourth consecutive hitter to go 3-2), then gave up a fly ball to deep center field. Alfonzo tagged up and scored easily from third, making this the third consecutive playoff game where the Mets scored in the first inning. But even with the second out finally recorded, Ankiel could not find the strike zone, as he walked Robin Ventura on four pitches.
Reliever Britt Reames began to loosen in the Cardinals' bullpen, while in the dugout, pitching coach Dave Duncan was, according to Cohen, "doing contortions" to try and show the lefty what he was doing wrong mechanically.
The next batter, Benny Agbayani, hit a line drive double into the left-center gap, scoring Piazza from second and sending Ventura to third. After Ankiel threw one high, outside pitch to Jay Payton, La Russa had finally seen enough and pulled him from the game. He later blamed himself for starting him in the first place. "The manager's responsibility is to put guys in the right position," he said. "I blame myself. I don't blame Rick Ankiel. He's too special." He also said Ankiel would not get the ball in game six, if the series went that far.
In a disastrous top of the first, this was all extremely hypothetical. Britt Reames trotted in from the dugout and struck out Payton on a nasty slider to end the inning, but the weirdness of this game was only just beginning.
Al Leiter took the mound in the bottom of the first, still looking for his first postseason win as a Met, and soon found himself in a jam not of his own making. After striking out Fernando Vina looking, he gave up a chopper to third base that clanked off of Robin Ventura's glove. Though scored a hit, it was the kind of play that Ventura routinely made. The Cardinals did not have many stolen base threats, but Renteria was one of them, and despite some close pickoff throws, he swiped second base easily. Leiter stranded him there when he struck out Jim Edmonds on a nasty slider, then got a broken bat floater from Fernando Tatis to end the inning.
Whatever bug affected the Mets' fielding abilities, the Cardinals soon caught it. After Britt Reames struck out Kurt Abbott to lead off the top of the second, Al Leiter hit a grounder that Vina tried to backhand but misplayed, allowing the slow-footed pitcher to reach first. Reames recovered with a pop up from Timo and a strikeout of Fonzie, but it was already clear this would not exactly be the most crisp game of baseball ever played.
Shawon Dunston batted with one out in the second, which brought up another chance for Cohen to wonder why La Russa started so many lefties against Leiter. With Eric Davis apparently available to play the outfield (La Russa insisted Davis was not sick), Cohen could not figure out why the Cardinals manager would not use him over Dunston, who was 1-for-10 lifetime against Leiter. So naturally, Dunston belted a double into the left field corner. "I guess that's why George Will called La Russa a genius," Cohen conceded.
Ray Lankford followed with a fly to shallow left that caught Benny Agbayani in between. He couldn't decide whether to try and catch it or let it fall, and the ball scooted past him. Luckily for the Mets, Jay Payton backed up the play, holding Dunston at third for the moment. Leiter almost avoided danger by getting a potential double-play grounder from Eli Marrero, but the ball took a bad hop, hitting Alfonzo's glove and chin. He recovered to get the force at first as Dunston scored on the play, cutting the Mets' lead in half. Despite the errors, it was an earned run, the first allowed by Mets pitchers since the fourth inning of game three of the NLDS. Leiter struck out Reames to limit the damage there.
Piazza led off the top of the third by hitting a prototypical Piazza home run, an opposite field bullet that landed in the Cardinals' bullpen, putting the Mets up 3-1. More sloppy baseball followed, as Vina could not handle an easy one-out grounder from Ventura, then a passed ball by Marrero moved him to second. Murphy was just as baffled about the errors as anyone. ("I don't know if it's in the water or what.") Reames retired the next two batters to squelch the scoring threat.
In the bottom half, Renteria tried to get things going again with a one-out single and another steal of second base. Leiter bore down to strike out Edmonds swinging on a slider and Tatis looking on the inside corner. Renteria's work so far in this game reminded Cohen of game seven of the 1997 World Series, which Leiter started and Renteria finished with walkoff RBI single.
In the fourth, the teams traded wasted scoring opportunities. Aflonzo hit a two-out triple in the top half, followed by an intentional walk of Piazza and an unintentional one for Zeile to load the bases, but Reames wriggled out of the jam with a grounder from Ventura. In the bottom half, Will Clark led off with a double, then moved to third on a Dunston sac fly. Leiter kept him there with strikeouts of Ray Lankford and Marrero.
The Mets and Cardinals had each committed some brutal errors and left plenty of men on base. The big difference was, the Mets had a lead in this game and a 1-0 lead in the series. In the 13 innings played so far, the Cardinals managed to get a runner into scoring position in 10 of them, but had only managed one earned run. No matter how good the Mets' pitching was, it was unlikely that this trend could continue. "You can't give the Cardinals runners in scoring position after inning after inning after inning and expect to get out of it," Cohen warned, and it proved prophetic in the bottom of the fifth.
Fernando Vina led off by laying down a perfect bunt between the pitcher's mound and third base. Leiter (not the greatest fielding pitcher) was unable to grab it in time, and Vina reached first safely. Renteria followed with a double into the left field corner. Vina scored all the way from first to make this a one-run game, and Renteria soon stole third to put the tying run 90 feet away. "Renteria is just wearing Leiter out tonight," Murphy said, and it was almost an understatement.
Leiter induced a flyout from Edmonds to center field, too shallow for Renteria to tag up on, and it looked like he might preserve the lead. But that's when Fernando Tatis doubled down the left field line to bring home Renteria and tie the game at 3. Will Clark swung at Leiter's first pitch and flew out to Agbayani to keep it tied.
"I don't think there's going to be any such thing as an easy inning for Al Leiter tonight," Murphy sighed in the midst of his fifth inning, as his pitch count rapidly approached 100. But just when he needed 1-2-3 innings the most, he finally got some. Dunston, Lankford, and Marrero went down in order in the bottom of the sixth, then he retired Craig Paquette (now playing third) and Vina to start the seventh. That brought up Renteria yet again. Leiter had been terrorized by him all night, and almost was for a fourth time as he sent a long fly ball toward the right field corner. Timo Perez used every bit of his speed to catch up with it and make a highlight-reel backhanded catch for the last out.
The Mets went quietly against new reliever Matt Morris in the top of the sixth, then made idle threats in the seventh. Zeilie led off and belted a double over Ray Lankford's head in left field. Robin Ventura fell behind 0-2, but managed to hit a grounder to first base that moved Zeile to third. With less than one out, all the Mets needed was a fly ball to retake the lead, but Renteria spoiled their plans by making a great stop on a grounder from Agbayani to hold the runner. "What else can Renteria do in this ball game?" Murphy wondered. Jay Payton popped out to second to waste another scoring opportunity.
In the top of the eighth, Morris quickly dispatched with pinch hitters Matt Franco and Darryl Hamilton. (Gary Cohen was baffled why Valentine didn't opt for Lenny Harris, who was 6 for 6 in his career against Morris.) But as he had all postseason, Timo Perez got things going for the Mets with a first pitch single. Edgardo Alfonzo followed, and he worked a full count, which allowed Timo a head start when he lined a hit into the left-center gap. Edmonds hurled a strong throw to the plate, but Timo just beat it to give the Mets the lead. It was Alfonzo's seventh RBI of the postseason. All of them had come with two out.
Alfonzo went to second on the throw, which caused the Cardinals to intentionally walk Piazza, then bring in their closer Dave Veres to try and shut the door. "Considering that big redhead sitting in the dugout," Cohen said, "it would certainly behoove the Mets to get more than one run here." With that in mind, Zeile knocked a single to left filed, driving in Alfonzo. Piazza was caught in a rundown on the play and tagged for the last out, but the Mets now had a 5-3 lead.
Leiter was still the pitcher of record, which meant he'd have a chance to finally earn his first playoff win as a Met. But since he was pinch hit for in the top of the eighth, that meant the bullpen would have to hold the lead in the bottom half. John Franco took over and retired the dangerous Jim Edmonds on an easy groundball to first (one that Edmonds didn't bother to run on, believing it to be foul). With that challenge met, Franco's attention seemed to lag, and he walked the light-hitting Carlos Hernandez (now catching). The next batter, Will Clark, belted a single to right field as Hernandez moved to third.
Now that the tying runs were on base, it was just a matter of time before Mark McGwire made an appearance. As he had during game one, McGwire stood in the dugout tunnel, helmet on and bat in hand, waiting for his cue. In the Mets bullpen, Turk Wendell--one of very few pitchers with success against the Cardinals slugger--began to throw.
Things went from bad to worse when Franco's first pitch to the next batter, Shawon Dunston, squirted away from Piazza. Hernandez trotted home, and Clark moved up to second, the tying run now in scoring position. The Busch Stadium crowd, subdued since Ankiel's meltdown, was back in full force, serenading the Mets' lefty with a hearty chant of FRAN-CO! (to the tune of DAR-RYL!). Franco overcame the noise to get Dunston to ground out to third for the second out.
Next, a managerial chess game. With the lefty Ray Lankford due up, Placido Polanco was announced as the pinch hitter. Bobby Valentine countered by bringing in Turk Wendell, so Tony La Russa called Polanco back to the bench. The entire stadium figured McGwire was coming, but La Russa dashed their hopes by sending up J.D. Drew instead. Even if the fans were bummed, Cohen guessed, "I think this is the matchup Tony La Russa wanted in this spot."
It certainly looked that way when Drew fought back from an 0-2 count to lace a hit to center field. Jay Payton bobbled the ball a bit, which both allowed Clark to score and Drew to reach second base. For the second time this postseason, a quality Al Leiter performance would go unrewarded. More importantly, the Mets had squandered their second lead of the night. The game was tied at 5 apiece.
With the pitcher's spot up next, La Russa finally used his trump card and sent up McGwire to pinch hit. The Cardinals fans were besides themselves with excitement. As Ira Berkow in The New York Times described it, "This was theater at its finest. The ballpark was dripping with drama. This was last scene of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear rolled into one. And what does the director do at this most gripping moment? He sends someone on stage to do the old soft-shoe."
The drama became farce because with first base open, there was no way the Mets would pitch to McGwire. La Russa had to know this would happen, but he didn't have much choice when it came to pinch hitters. To get to this point in the game, he'd used every player on his bench except Rick Wilkins, his last remaining catcher. So McGwire took four wide ones, made a deliberate jog to first base, and was replaced by pinch runner Darryl Kile. Wendell fanned Craig Paquette to strand him and Drew where they stood.
It was a Pyrrhic victory. Though the Cards clawed their way back to tie, it looked like it was going to be very difficult for them to come out on top. Especially since they'd already used their secret weapon, with nothing to show for it.
Mike Timlin took over the pitching duties in the top of the ninth and fell immediately behind 3-0 to Ventura. The third baseman then lined a ball off of Will Clark's foot and reached first as the ball dribbled past him. Agbayani was up next, clearly in a bunting situation, though he'd failed miserably when trying to lay one down late in game three against the Giants. But he produced a perfect bunt here ("You couldn't roll it out there any better," Murphy said), moving Ventura to second.
Joe McEwing pinch ran for Ventura as Payton came to the plate. He fell behind 0-2, but fouled off some tough pitches, then laced a hit to center field. The ball bounced higher off the outfield carpet than Edmonds expected, and it went over his outstretched glove, rolling all the way to the outfield wall. McEwing scored easily, and Payton raced all the way to third.
"There's no one on the team, maybe no one in the league, who has as much confidence in himself as Jay Payton,'' Valentine noted later. "He didn't have any hits going into that at-bat, but I know he believed deep down in his heart, right down to his toes, that he was the best man in that situation." Cohen observed that, although Payton didn't have many hits in the postseason, the few he had were huge, like his go-ahead RBI single in game 2 against the Giants.
The Mets failed to get Payton home from third and add some insurance, though it barely mattered. As the bottom of the ninth began, Bob Murphy intoned his customary "Fasten your seatbelts!", but for once Armando Benitez added little drama to the proceedings. He induced easy fly outs to center from Vina and Renteria to bring the Cardinals down to their last out. A walk to Edmonds followed, although that wasn't the worst thing in the world, considering the one-run lead and Edmonds' power. Benitez preferred to face Carlos Hernandez, and he struck out the catcher to seal the win and give the Mets a 2-0 lead in the series.
After the game, Edmonds shouldered the bulk of the blame, not just for his misplay in the ninth, but also for his quiet bat. "I didn't do much today," he said. "I came up in situations where if I could put the ball in play I could drive a run in. I didn't, and I made a bad play at the end so sitting down at my locker it feels like I pretty much lost the game all by myself."
As for the Mets, they had won, in the words of the Times' Tyler Kepner, "in their preferred fashion. They have come back so often to win so many dramatic October games that the thrilling has become almost routine." T.J. Quinn wrote in the Daily News, "The NLCS is a seven-game series, but last night, as the Mets boarded a plane home...it felt as though the whole thing was already over."
When the team ran back into the dugout, a few rabid Mets who made the trip screamed at the team. "Six more!" they yelledd. "Six more!"