Cardinals save their best for last
(Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
NEW YORK--One started Friday night through controversy, the other entered through attrition.
Co-conspirators in the improbable, third baseman Scott Spiezio and replacement left fielder So Taguchi loosened control of the National League Championship Series from the New York Mets on Friday in a late-night finish that left the Cardinals 9-6 winners and the Shea Stadium crowd of 56,349 stunned into silence.
Where the series ultimately carries the 83-win Cardinals is unknown. But without the late-inning contributions of Spiezio and Taguchi, its return to Queens for Games 6 and 7 would have been nothing more than a wild guess.
The Cardinals celebrated a big finish against the bullpen considered to be one of the Mets' most imposing advantages.
Leading off the ninth inning, Taguchi jumped Mets closer Billy Wagner for a game-winning home run after fouling off four two-strike pitches. Taguchi's home run landed atop a tent covering the visitors' bullpen and gave the Cardinals their first lead of the series. It represented a season's moment to a player who managed just six regular-season RBIs after June.
The home run came in his second at-bat of the postseason. Taguchi also hit a home run in his other at-bat, in the eighth inning of their Game 3 loss to the San Diego Padres in the first round.
This one capped a game in which the Cardinals trailed 3-0, 4-2 and 6-4, a game manager Tony La Russa considered "may have been the best comeback on a (playoff) team I've been around."
The tie game reached Taguchi because Spiezio produced a two-run triple off reliever Guillermo Mota in the seventh inning. Spiezio's drive failed to leave the park only because right fielder Shawn Green deflected it back as it threatened to clear the fence.
"I saw it. I was watching it the whole time," Spiezio said. "It was really hard for me to tell. It was a tough call. Thank God, it didn't matter. Either way, I'm happy with it."
Spiezio started in place of Scott Rolen, who was benched after a one-for-14 start to the postseason. Rolen insisted hours before the game that the move surprised and disappointed him.
Acquired this spring following his release by the Seattle Mariners, Spiezio added to a postseason legend that began with 19 RBIs in 16 postseason games for the 2002 Anaheim Angels.
"In any normal situation, if Rolen was anywhere near where he should be, I wouldn't have started," Spiezio said. "But it does give me a lot of confidence because Tony puts me in a situation and knows that I can have some big at-bats for him.
"Whenever you have a manager that has confidence in you it boosts the whole morale of the team. I think it gets us more excited when we get put in those situations."
Taguchi, the Cardinals' Game 1 starter in the 2004 World Series, received only 29 at-bats in September, hitting .207 with one RBI for the month. Indeed, Taguchi produced only six RBIs after June as his time eroded with Chris Duncan's ascendance and the acquisition of outfielder Preston Wilson.
Wagner quickly got ahead of him with two strikes before Taguchi extended the at-bat with four foul balls. He concluded the at-bat by launching the home run.
The homer was Taguchi's 18th since leaving the Japanese Central League for St. Louis in 2002. The hit was his first against Wagner, leaving the 37-year-old stunned as jogged the bases.
"I didn't know what to do, so I just run," Taguchi said.
La Russa said: "He's not a big home run hitter. But I'm serious when I tell you, give him a clutch at-bat and he'll give you a real good effort. You're expecting a single or double, not a home run, especially off Billy Wagner. You can tell the experience. In Japan, he was a big-time player and he's not intimidated by it."
The inning didn't end there as Pujols and Spiezio doubled for an 8-6 lead. Juan Encarnacion ripped the inning's fourth hit, to score Spiezio for a three-run edge. Rookie Tyler Johnson got the first out before Adam Wainwright got the last two in a non-save situation. Rookie Josh Kinney received the win in return for a scoreless eighth inning.
La Russa admitted a loss would have put the Cardinals in an untenable position. Staff ace Chris Carpenter lasted only five difficult innings as he allowed three-first inning runs on the first of two home runs by first baseman Carlos Delgado.
After control-challenged Mets starter John Maine allowed the Cardinals two runs in the second, Carpenter was damaged again in the bottom half by shortstop Jose Reyes' RBI single.
"He really struggled, but he hung in there and really stopped the bleeding," La Russa said. "Going down 0-2, even though we're going home, would have been a tough situation."
The Cardinals instead play the next three games at Busch Stadium on even footing with the team that shut them out in Game 1 and treated them roughly for much of Game 2.
The staff strong man, Carpenter insists he is fine, that he is not worn from 502-plus innings the past two seasons. But his past five starts, including two first-round wins over the Padres, suggest otherwise. He allowed 21 hits and 12 earned runs in his final two September starts, both losses. He beat the Padres in Game 1 on two days' extra rest. The same pitcher who walked one batter in August won Game 4 after walking three hitters in the first inning. Carpenter has not thrown a side session between starts for a month.
Friday offered a repeat of last Sunday's first-inning struggles, but with more damage. Shortstop Jose Reyes led off with a double and took third on catcher Paul Lo Duca's sacrifice.
Mets center fielder, Cardinals postseason nemesis and Game 1 hero Carlos Beltran worked a walk to bring up Carpenter's longtime Toronto Blue Jays teammate, Delgado.
The count went full before Delgado went deep. His shot to left-center field easily climbed the seats for a 3-0 lead.
Maine was imprecise as well. Two walks and Delgado's ham-fisted play allowed catcher Yadier Molina to make the score 3-2 on an opposite-field double, his first of three hits.
The Cardinals settled for a glint of inspiration in the third inning when center fielder Jim Edmonds followed a one-out walk of Pujols with a 410-foot home run to center field good for a 4-4 tie.
Delgado crashed his second home run off Carpenter and third of the postseason with one out in the fifth.