- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Forget about their 97 wins, their deep and talented lineup and the fact they had the National League East title wrapped up sometime around Memorial Day.

The New York Mets were far from a perfect ballclub this season, and the baseball public is finding out why that was the case: They have the starting rotation of a .500 club, not a World Series contender.

And because of it, they find themselves in serious trouble in the National League Championship Series, down two games to one to the St. Louis Cardinals after last night’s 5-0 thumping at Busch Stadium.

For that, the Mets can blame their suspect rotation, in particular John Maine and Steve Trachsel, the Nos. 2 and 3 starters who collectively surrendered nine runs in five total innings the last two days.

It was one thing for Maine, a 25-year-old in his first full major league season, to struggle under the bright lights of October. But New York manager Willie Randolph had to expect more from Trachsel, the 14-year veteran who won 15 games this season.

Instead, Randolph got the following, horrendous pitching line from his right-hander: one-plus inning, five runs, five hits, five walks, one homer surrendered to the opposing pitcher.

Trachsel’s line might have been even worse had he not been knocked out of the game four batters into the second after getting thwacked in the right thigh by a Preston Wilson comebacker. That injury spared Trachsel any more humiliation and allowed long reliever Darren Oliver to enter and keep things from getting out of control with six gutsy innings of scoreless ball out of the bullpen.

Not that it really mattered at that point. The Cardinals were already up 5-0 after two innings, and with reliable veteran Jeff Suppan on the mound, that lead was in good hands.

Suppan, whose career has practically been a carbon copy of Trachsel’s, was everything his counterpart wasn’t last night. The 31-year-old worked fast, threw strikes and was economical, throwing only 99 pitches over eight sparkling innings.

He even provided some punch with his bat, clubbing a leadoff homer in the second on a low, 0-2 fastball. The sellout crowd of 47,053 roared as Suppan rounded the bases for only the second time in his career, probably not even realizing that both of the hurler’s homers have come off … you guessed it: Steve Trachsel.

“I swung. It ran into my bat,” Suppan said.

Suppan’s blast off the top of the left-field fence was one of two clutch Cardinals hits on the night. The other (a two-run triple to right by Scott Spiezio) put the home team on top in the first and set the tone for the entire evening.

The outcome was all but sealed by the top of the third, especially the way Suppan was going. He scattered three hits, didn’t walk a batter until the eighth and never let the Mets seriously threaten while improving to 4-2 with a 3.07 ERA in seven career postseason starts.

“In our game, if one starting pitcher is better than the other one earlier in the game, that dictates a lot of how that game is going to be played,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “So if there is something to the starting pitcher, that dictates momentum.”

If anything, Suppan’s performance last night served as a reminder just how important starting pitching is in the playoffs. St. Louis, which captured the NL Central title despite only 83 wins, may have its flaws. But La Russa does have three potentially solid starters at his disposal in Suppan, ace Chris Carpenter and right-hander Jeff Weaver (who has looked dominant in two starts this month).

That may not stack up with the newly crowned American League champion Detroit Tigers’ quartet of Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. But it at least gives the Cardinals a shot, which is more than the Mets can say right now.

The team that was supposed to run away with the NL pennant is about to entrust its season to Oliver Perez, a 25-year-old castoff of the Pittsburgh Pirates who will take a 3-13 record and 6.55 ERA to the hill tonight in Game 4.

“We like his stuff,” Randolph said. “We felt like he was the guy that would give us a quality start.”

The Mets had better hope Perez comes through, lest they face an elimination game tomorrow night with 40-year-old Tom Glavine pitching on short rest.

Wouldn’t that be something: the “unstoppable” Mets in full desperation mode, simply hoping to send this series back home.

“We don’t try to overanalyze or be too dramatic about anything that goes on,” Randolph said. “We’ve been a good team all year, and that’s the way we play. We played loose and easy all year long. We’re not going to change that now.”

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