- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Two rainouts, two blowouts and lots of bad pitching had turned the National League Championship Series into something of a disjointed, lackluster event.

In fact, the atmosphere inside Busch Stadium for Games 3 and 4 between the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets felt more like a run-of-the-mill midsummer series than a fall classic.

Something happened when the hometown Cardinals took the field last night for Game 5, though. The sellout crowd of 46,496 let out a roar and remained riveted for the next 3 hours, 26 minutes. It was as if St. Louis’ fans were letting their team know it was time to rachet things up a notch. This was a make-or-break game, and the fans in this baseball-crazy town knew it.

So did the Cardinals. Thanks to a much-anticipated Albert Pujols home run off Tom Glavine, another pitching gem from Jeff Weaver and some gutsy work from its young bullpen, St. Louis beat the Mets 4-2 to take a 3-2 lead in this back-and-forth series.

The Cardinals — the 83-win, back-their-way-into-the-playoffs, heavy-underdog Cardinals — will send ace Chris Carpenter to the mound tonight at Shea Stadium with a chance to win the franchise’s 17th pennant.

“It’s amazing,” Pujols said. “These guys just find a way to turn it around.”

They’ll find themselves in this advantageous situation because they managed to do what no other team has this month: Beat Glavine. The 40-year-old de-facto ace of the Mets staff was roughed up for the first time in three postseason starts, allowing three runs and getting knocked out before recording a single out in the fifth.

They’ll find themselves on the precipice of the World Series because they received six innings of two-run ball from Weaver, the right-hander with the 5.76 regular-season ERA who has now posted a 2.16 ERA in three postseason starts.

“One advantage of playing a team in a long series like this is the opportunity to pitch twice,” Weaver said. “You get an idea of their approach. You can do your homework and come up with an even better game plan than the last time.”

And they’ll find themselves in this unlikely position because a couple of rookie relievers — Randy Flores and Adam Wainwright, who managed to record the evening’s final five outs, the first two of which came with the tying runs on second and third in a harrowing eighth inning.

Wainwright, the 25-year-old with less than a month of experience as a closer, struck out Jose Valentin on a wicked curveball to end the eighth and then retired the side in the ninth to send the crowd into pandemonium.

“Sometimes you just get the pitching against you,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said. “They pitched well against us. Their bullpen did a great job.”

The focus from the start was on the starters. Just as they did in Game 1 at Shea Stadium, both pitchers dominated early. This time, though, both suffered hiccups in the fourth.

Weaver was cruising along until the start of the inning was delayed because the grounds crew couldn’t get first base to fit properly on its peg. It’s doubtful an accomplished major league pitcher would be thrown off by something like that, but Weaver did open the inning with a walk to Carlos Delgado, then later surrendered back-to-back doubles to Shawn Green and Valentin (the latter of which scored two runs to put the Mets up).

That same 2-0 lead was all Glavine needed five nights earlier. This time, it didn’t even come close.

The veteran left-hander suffered a terrible fourth: serving up a solo homer to Pujols, a wall-scraper to left on a 2-2 changeup that ignited the sellout crowd and added a new bit of intrigue to the feud that’s developed between the two stars.

Pujols made headlines last week when he claimed Glavine “wasn’t that good at all” despite seven shutout innings in the Mets’ Game 1 victory.

Glavine said: “If he truly didn’t think I pitched well the other night, then I hope I do something to really impress him.”

Suffice it to say, Pujols couldn’t have been too impressed with the future Hall of Famer in this one. The home run was only the beginning of Glavine’s poor outing. He gave up a walk and two singles later in the fourth, tying the game 2-2, then crumbled in the fifth.

Leadoff man David Eckstein started things off with a well-placed single just over the reach of shortstop Jose Reyes. Then Preston Wilson, who wasn’t exactly known for coming through in the clutch last season with the Washington Nationals, delivered in a big way with his new team. His double to the right-center gap brought Eckstein all the way around with the go-ahead run, and all but spelled the end for Glavine.

Randolph kept the lefty in to intentionally walk Pujols, but then yanked his starter in most unceremonious fashion: before he even recorded an out in the fifth.

Glavine, who hadn’t been scored upon in his last three starts, was charged with three runs. If not for a valiant effort from the New York bullpen — which escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam — he might well have been on the hook for more.

The Mets relief corps couldn’t completely hold the Cardinals down the rest of the way, though. Pedro Feliciano was touched up for a pinch-hit homer by rookie Chris Duncan in the sixth, a key insurance run that gave St. Louis some breathing room as it attempted to close out this game.

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