October 14: The Mets had won five playoff games in a row, thanks to a combination of timely hitting, excellent pitching, good defense, and luck. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and all these factors failed to show up when they returned to Shea for game three.
Even though the Cardinals were down two games to none as they traveled to New York, their fans camped out at Busch Stadium in the hopes of buying World Series tickets. The team itself remained confident. "Other than the record, how can you be down about this club," Tony La Russa said. "And how can the club be down? You can't."
You could certainly understand if they were. After a disappointing game two loss and flying through the night to New York, they suffered yet another indignity when the bus scheduled to take them to Shea Stadium for an off-day workout was 45 minutes late. A rally at the UN building delayed its progress.
While the teams worked out Shea, the Yankees put themselves in a good position by beating the Mariners 8-2 to take an 2-1 lead in the ALCS. Andy Pettite tossed another gem, Mariano Rivera wriggled out of a jam in the bottom of the eighth, and the team scored four runs in the top of the ninth to put the game away.
Rick Reed took the mound for the Mets in front of a rowdy Shea crowd on a crisp October afternoon. The fact that Reed owned an ERA of 8.00 against the Cardinals in 2000 may have been a signal that this game would not go well for him. But he also had a 2.84 ERA in the playoffs, so perhaps Bobby Valentine hoped the latter would trump the former. It didn't. Facing a righty starter for the first time in the series, the once dormant St. Louis offense finally woke up.
Fernando Vina led off the game with a single. Edgar Renteria followed by laying down a bunt toward third base, presumably a sacrifice. The normally sure-handed Robin Ventura could not grab it, and Renteria reached on the error. Jim Edmonds knocked them both in with a double, and just like that the Cardinals were up 2-0. After a Will Clark single, Reed struck out Ray Lankford, Fernando Tatis, and J.D. Drew to wriggle out of further danger, but it was obvious this would not be an easy day for the Mets.
La Russa rolled the dice when he decided to start Andy Benes (not that he had many other options to choose from). The veteran righty had frayed cartilage in his knee, to the point where the joint needed to be drained prior to each start. He did not appear in the division series, so how he would perform in this game was anyone's guess. He'd made seven playoff starts in his career, both with St. Louis and Seattle, and won none of them.
At first, he looked no better than Reed, giving up singles to Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo to start the bottom of the first. The inning--and the game--changed when Benes induced a double play grounder from Mike Piazza. Perez scored on the twin killing, but a potentially big inning yielded just one run.
After a quiet second inning for both sides, the Cardinals extended their lead in the top of the third inning with an RBI single from Lankford and a sac fly from Tatis to make the score 4-1. Once the Mets were retired easily in the bottom half, the St. Louis bats struck again, as one-out singles from Benes, Vina, and Renteria plated another run. "Every time we punched back," Todd Zeile said after the game, "they punched back twice."
That finally chased Reed from the game, and he took his frustrations out on a dugout Gatorade cooler as Glendon Rusch relieved him. The lefty struck out Edmonds looking, but hit Clark with a pitch to load the bases. That prompted La Russa to bat for Lankford with Mark McGwire, hoping for a knockout blow. Rusch induced a harmless fly out to left and was thankful for it. "If he hits that up a little more, he probably hits it to the parking lot," he said later.
McGwire's put out gave the Mets a reprieve, and in the bottom of the fourth, it looked like they might take advantage of it. Ventura led off with a walk, followed by singles from Zeile and Benny Agbayani to load the bases with nobody out. That brought up Jay Payton, and though he'd already had a few huge hits in these playoffs, he couldn't come through here. He hit a weak grounder to Vina at second, who chased Agbayani back toward first, tossed the ball to Clark for the force out, and got Benny caught in a rundown, finally tagging him for out number two.
Ventura scored on the play to make the score 5-2, but the rally was over. Benes walked the next batter, Mike Bordick, to bring up the pitcher's spot, which forced Valentine to bat for Rusch. Pinch hitter Darryl Hamilton hit a bloop to shallow center field. For a split second, Edmonds had a bad lead on its trajectory, making the Shea crowd gasp in anticipation. But Edmonds being Edmonds, he recovered and snared the ball for the third out. That not only ended the inning, but also removed Rusch--a lefty who had good numbers against the Cardinals--with nothing to show for it.
Rick White took over the pitching in the top of the fifth and immediately dug the Mets into a bigger hole. The first pitch he threw was belted by Fernando Tatis for a double, and he came home following singles from Drew and Carlos Hernandez. After a sac bunt from Benes, Vina reached on a fielder's choice to score another run, and Renteria followed with an RBI groundout.
When the dust settled, three runs had scored, putting the game well out of reach. White pitched the next two innings and escaped a jam when Will Clark was gunned down at the plate in the top of the sixth. Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell pitched the eighth and ninth respectively without incident, but the damage had long since been done. Whether it was a flat feeling or Benes finding a groove, the Mets' offense could do very little to claw their way back into the game. Benes made it look easy, retiring 12 of the 13 batters he faced in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth innings.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets made some brief noise when Zeile led off with a walk and Agbayani singled against reliever Mike James. La Russa was not about to let this game get away from him and called in closer Dave Veres despite the six run lead. He promptly struck out Payton and pinch hitters Matt Franco and Bubba Trammell--all of them looking--to end the game and get the Cardinals a much needed win.
A 2-1 series was far different than a 3-0 series. Now the Cardinals had some realistic hope, and perhaps some momentum as well. But Jim Edmonds admitted they still had a ways to go. "It's not big unless we win tomorrow," he said. "We have to win."
As for the Mets, there was a feeling even before the game got underway that they were a bit "flat". Jay Payton thought, "We didn't have the fire we had in the last two games. I don't know if we got burned out by the last two games." Edgardo Alfonzo summed it up: "Early in the game we saw the first two runs, they got some more, and after that we gave up. We just should have come in more aggressive."
And yet, they were not about to panic. "We'd rather be us than them at this point," Todd Zeile said after the loss. "We have to bounce back and try to get to Kile early. He's the type of pitcher that gets better as the game goes on. It was important when we got to him early in St. Louis, and that's something we're going to try to do tomorrow."
If this loss went largely unnoticed in New York, it was because the Yankees had just taken a 3-1 lead in the ALCS thanks to a complete game one-hit shutout by Roger Clemens. Early in the game, Clemens fired a brushback pitch to Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez (the kind the Mets were well familiar with). Seattle glared at Clemens and groused about the gamesmanship, but never seemed to recover. His 15 strikeouts tied the championship series record. In a playoff history with the Yankees that was checkered at best, it was Clemens' first true postseason gem in pinstripes.