- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

NEW YORK — As the young man in the blue cap and pinstriped New York Mets uniform retreated from the mound to the first-base dugout at Shea Stadium last night, a throng of 56,334 championship-starved fans let out the loudest of their endless stream of roars.

John Maine, an unassuming, 25-year-old right-hander from Fredericksburg, Va., looked as if he didn’t know quite how to respond. The cheers were all for him, for he had just pitched 5-1/3 innings of shutout ball to keep the Mets alive for another day, but all he could do was offer a sheepish wave of his right hand.

“It’s great, the fans here,” he said afterward. “That extra momentum, they give it to you. It’s fun playing in front of these fans.”

Authoring one of the most unlikely pitching gems in playoff history, Maine carried the Mets to a 4-2 victory over the stunned St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Just like that, these two teams will square off tonight in a winner-take-all Game 7, with the victor heading straight to Detroit for the start of the World Series on Saturday.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow night,” Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said. “This has been an unbelievable series.”

Maybe this seesaw affair was meant to be decided like this all along, with two dog-tired ballclubs slugging it out one last time, hoping their weary pitching staffs can cobble together nine more innings and secure the pennant.

In that regard, the Cardinals would seem to still have the edge. Manager Tony La Russa will send veteran Jeff Suppan to the hill five days removed from his own eight-inning masterpiece at Busch Stadium.

Mets manager Willie Randolph decided to go with Oliver Perez, the erratic left-hander who went 3-13 during the regular season but managed to string together 5-2/3 effective innings in a Game 4 win.

Why Perez?

“Because I like him,” Randolph said without hesitating.

The second-year manager was happy to have to make that decision given all his club went through to reach this point. Staring elimination in the face last night, he got a brilliant performance from Maine and setup men Chad Bradford, Guillermo Mota and Aaron Heilman before closer Billy Wagner escaped a harrowing ninth inning, surrendering two runs and allowing the tying run to come to the plate.

Wagner, though, finished this one off, ensuring there will be a Game 7 and ensuring Maine will go down in Mets lore.

Pitching the most important game of his young life, the former Baltimore Oriole figured to have a few butterflies when he took the mound to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. And he appeared to show some jitters during a shaky first inning that saw the Cardinals put runners on second and third with no outs.

With the poise of a playoff-tested veteran, though, Maine calmly worked his way out of the jam. He struck out Jim Edmonds on three pitches, then after plunking Juan Encarnacion to load the bases, got Scott Rolen to hit a harmless, inning-ending fly ball.

“When you get a chance like that, second and third, and you’ve got a young guy [on the mound] I think he gained confidence and got better and better,” La Russa said. “We’ve got to execute better, get at least one there.”

Even if the Cardinals’ failure to convert didn’t constitute a seismic shift in fortunes, what happened next surely did. Jose Reyes, leading off the bottom of the first, launched a Chris Carpenter fastball over the right-field fence. Suddenly, the Mets owned a 1-0 lead, and their young starter had renewed confidence.

“It’s huge, anytime you get a lead and get your guy out there a little more comfortable,” Lo Duca said. “That’s a huge lift to get the crowd in the game. After he left the bases loaded in the top of the inning, that’s a huge momentum swing.”

Maine came back from the near-disastrous first and dominated from that point on. The Cardinals never got another hit off him, and though they drew four walks, not a single man crossed the plate.

“John pitched a great ballgame,” Randolph said. “He didn’t lose his cool, he stayed poised. The thing I love about him is that he didn’t really waver too much.”

Maine was particularly effective against St. Louis’ most-dangerous batters. Mixing in a 93-mph fastball with a devastating breaking ball, he retired Edmonds and Encarnacion with two men on in the third. And he made slugger Albert Pujols look downright silly with three bending sliders during a fifth-inning strikeout.

By then, Maine was working with a 2-0 lead, thanks to three fourth-inning singles from his teammates, capped by Shawn Green’s RBI.

That’s all the offense New York managed against Carpenter, who deserved a better fate on this night. The Cardinals ace certainly redeemed himself after a sub-par performance in Game 2, but it still wasn’t enough to put him in line for the win. La Russa pulled the right-hander back from the on-deck circle with one on and one out in the seventh, sensing this might be his best chance to put something on the board.

He was wrong. Mota got pinch-hitter Chris Duncan to ground into an inning-ending double play, and Lo Duca followed in the bottom of the inning with a two-run single to add to New York’s lead.

It was just one more key moment that went the Mets’ way on a night when it seemed like they could do no wrong.

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