- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

NEW YORK — He was brought into the game in the eighth as a defensive replacement, one of those Tony La Russa specials that some might call overmanaging.

La Russa’s decision to insert So Taguchi into the thick of the National League Championship Series last night sure looked like a brilliant move by the time Game 2 ended.

The slight Japanese outfielder stunned the New York Mets and 56,349 fans at Shea Stadium when he clubbed a ninth-inning fastball from Billy Wagner into the left-field bullpen for the tie-breaking home run in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 9-6 victory.

Defensive specialist-turned-offensive stud.

Maybe Taguchi just has a flair for the dramatics. In 960 career regular season at-bats, he’s hit a total of 16 homers. In two at-bats this postseason, he’s hit two.

The Cardinals, who evened this series up and head home for Game 3 tonight, couldn’t have asked for a bigger hit from the 163-pound left fielder. Sent in to replace rookie Chris Duncan in what was a tie game, he led off the ninth with a bang.

Wagner, the Mets’ dominant closer, had no chance to pitch in a save situation, so manager Willie Randolph put him into this unfamiliar position. He paid the price. Taguchi crushed a 3-2 fastball to left, silencing the crowd and putting St. Louis ahead for the first time all night.

If that wasn’t bad enough for New York, Wagner suffered a complete meltdown after that, giving up two more runs on doubles by Albert Pujols and Scott Spiezio and a single by Juan Encarnacion.

Rookies Tyler Johnson and Adam Wainwright then closed out the Mets in the bottom of the ninth, securing the win for Josh Kinney, another rookie in the Cardinals bullpen.

St. Louis’ three-run ninth capped an impressive rally from a club widely perceived as the underdogs in this series. What was shaping up to be Carlos Delgado Night at Shea — the Mets slugger, in the playoffs for the first time in his 14-year career, clubbed two home runs to put his team on top — instead morphed into a tense, nail-biter once the Cardinals rallied to tie the game in the seventh.

The big blow came via Spiezio, whose two-out triple off reliever Guillermo Mota brought two runs home and wiped out New York’s 6-4 lead. It did not come without controversy, though, for Spiezio’s shot to right glanced off a leaping Shawn Green’s glove, then off the top of the fence and back into play.

La Russa argued vehemently with right-field umpire Tim Welke, insisting Spiezio should be awarded a home run, and Welke did gather his five partners for a lengthy conference before standing by his original call.

Whether Green robbed Spiezio of a three-run homer or not was debatable. What wasn’t debatable was the situation the two teams now faced: a tie ballgame late into the night with an uncertain outcome perhaps hinging on one crucial mistake.

They found themselves in such a predicament because of some ineffective starting pitching on both sides.

Down a game with Chris Carpenter on the mound, the Cardinals came in knowing they all but had to get a win out of their ace. So how many eyebrows were raised throughout the Midwest when the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner was tagged by Delgado for a three-run homer in the bottom of the first?

At that moment, it wasn’t inappropriate to question whether St. Louis’ pennant dreams had already been killed. Down three runs to the vaunted Mets lineup, with Carpenter on the ropes, what hope did the Cardinals have?

Turns out this is a more-resilient ballclub than most believed. St. Louis bounced back from the stunning opening stanza to make this a competitive game.

Aided by a Delgado fielding error, the Cardinals got two runs back in the second on Yadier Molina’s bases-loaded double down the right-field line. The Mets responded with another run in the bottom of the inning, but St. Louis one-upped them by plating two more in the third when Jim Edmonds sent a 2-2 pitch from John Maine over the left-center fence.

Just like that, the game was tied, and New York fans had to wonder if they were about to waste this opportunity.

It didn’t help matters that Maine looked every bit like a 25-year-old with 24 career starts to his name and nothing like the impressive young pitcher who worked his way into Randolph’s postseason rotation.

Maine, the Fredericksburg, Va., native and former Baltimore Oriole, never found a groove during his aborted, four-inning start. He allowed only two hits (the Molina double and the Edmonds homer) but he walked five and, more importantly, couldn’t give Randolph enough innings to comfortably turn things over to his bullpen.

Maine never had a chance to earn the win, but reliever Chad Bradford did after tossing 12/3 scoreless innings and having the good fortune of still being in the game when Delgado mashed his second homer of the night.

Delgado’s second (an opposite-field number off Carpenter) wasn’t as majestic as his first (a 440-foot bomb to left-center). But it served its purpose, giving the Mets a 5-4 lead. One inning later, Paul Lo Duca doubled in Jose Reyes to pad the lead and put New York in position to win.

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