<
>

Rookie Maine stymies Cards as Mets force Game 7

NEW YORK (AP) -- Even before Game 6, the New York Mets were briefed on travel plans to Detroit for the World Series opener.

Brimming with confidence and blocking out adversity, John Maine pitched a game to remember, making sure that itinerary would not be thrown away. And now, the National League Championship Series comes down to a winner-take-all finale.

The rookie dominated St. Louis with the poise of a veteran, Jose Reyes sparked the offense with a leadoff home run and the Mets rocked 'n' rolled at boisterous Shea Stadium to beat the Cardinals 4-2 on Wednesday night and force a Game 7.

Missing Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez?

So what.

Sending out a rookie to start Game 6 and Oliver Perez for Game 7?

The Mets are sure they can find a way to make it work.

With the season on the line, Mets manager Willie Randolph exudes an assured attitude that has filtered down throughout his roster.

"I think if you're going to play the game and you want to be a winner, you have to believe that you can," he said.

Maine outpitched reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first and two-on trouble in the third. Maine allowed two hits in the first and none after that, pitching 5 1/3 shutout innings, striking out five and walking four.

"I knew everything was riding on it," he said.

Reyes had three hits and two stolen bases, Shawn Green boosted the lead with a fourth-inning RBI single and Paul Lo Duca let the loud crowd of 56,334 exhale with a two-run, two-out single in the seventh off ex-Met Braden Looper that made it 4-0.

That turned out to be key because Billy Wagner gave up a two-run, two-out double to So Taguchi in the ninth before retiring David Eckstein on a game-ending grounder.

Now the pennant comes down to Thursday night, when the Cardinals start Jeff Suppan, who won Game 3 with eight scoreless innings.

"This is what you dream," said Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, who has been held to one RBI in the series. "This is what it's all about."

Perez, who won Game 4, was 3-13 during the regular season. He didn't join the Mets until July 31.

"Everyone is going to pitch in. Everyone is going to maintain the lead," Perez said.

Of 11 prior teams to trail 3-2 in the LCS and force a seventh game, eight won pennants -- the exceptions were the 1988 Mets, the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates and 2003 Boston Red Sox.

"We'll take our chances with Game 7," the Cardinals' Jim Edmonds said. "We're ready to play."

Home teams that have won Game 6 to tie a postseason series have won 11 straight Game 7s since the 1975 Red Sox lost the World Series finale to Cincinnati.

"If I could have written the script, I wouldn't have done it like this," said the Mets' Carlos Delgado, in the first postseason of his career. "We've battled. Hopefully, we can get that win."

Maine and Carpenter had crossed paths on their way to New York -- both left ahead of their teams Tuesday to rest up for their starts.

"Maine was on the same flight as me. We got delayed and sat for two hours in St. Louis and ended up not getting here until 11 o'clock," Carpenter said. "He said, 'Hello,' and I said, 'Hello' and that was about it. When we landed it was raining real bad, and we just talked about hoping we didn't get rained out."

There was no rain, and the Shea Stadium crowd was feisty. The volume on the speakers were turned up, and the scoreboard flashed quotes from Mets players praising the fans. In the first Game 6 at the ballpark since the famous comeback against Boston that was capped by Mookie Wilson's grounder through Bill Buckner's legs, the spirit of '86 was invoked on several signs.

"Uno, dos, adios," read another sign.

The Mets even wore their traditional pinstripes, just like in their championship years of 1969 and 1986.

"I looked in the stands a couple of times and it looked like a college students' section. People didn't sit down the whole game," Lo Duca said. "That's an unbelievable feeling. And when something goes your way, it's electric."

Maine, a 25-year-old right-hander obtained in January's dump of Kris Benson to Baltimore, came up with the big outs early, perhaps the biggest of his life. St. Louis had runners at second and third with one out in the first, before Maine fanned Edmonds on three pitches and loaded the bases by hitting Juan Encarnacion. Lo Duca saved a run with a backhand stop of a pitch in the dirt on a 1-2 pitch to Scott Rolen, who then flied out.

"We've got to get at least one there," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

Reyes' home run, a no-doubt-about-it drive to right-center, came when Carpenter left a cutter over the plate on his third pitch. It was Reyes' first in postseason play -- his first since Sept. 10.

"As Jose goes, we go," Randolph said. "His energy is infectious."

Eckstein walked leading off the third and stole second, but Maine struck out Scott Spiezio and, after intentionally walking Pujols, retired Edmonds on a flyout and struck out Encarnacion.

"I think early we could have gotten on him," Spiezio said. "We kind of let him off the hook there, and then he started getting more confidence and started throwing the changeup and the slider for strikes."

That left St. Louis 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals didn't get another runner past first until the ninth inning.

"It's huge to pitch the way he did -- he has no fear," Mets third baseman David Wright said.

When it was time to come out, Maine was circled on the mound like a conquering hero: Reyes slapped him on the back and Wright patted him on the shoulder. Maine acknowledged the standing ovation with only a small wave of his left hand as he walked to the dugout.

"I try not to put too much pressure on myself," Maine said. "I just try to pound the strike zone and get them to put it in play."

Chad Bradford, Guillermo Mota and Aaron Heilman followed, with Bradford getting Rolen to hit into an inning-ending double play in the sixth and Mota retiring pinch-hitter Chris Duncan on an inning-ending double play in the seventh.

Game notes
Reyes had a club-record six leadoff homers during the regular season. ... The Cardinals were 1-for-8 overall with runners in scoring position, dropping to 9-for-46 (.196) in the series.