Maine pushes NLCS to the limit
Rookie throws 5 1/3 scoreless innings to force decisive Game 7
NEW YORK -- For Mets fans, there is nothing quite so romantic as a Game 6 in October.That flame that reached so many hearts in 1986 with a double dose of Game 6 magic was ignited again, 20 years later, on a glorious Wednesday night at Shea Stadium, where the Mets dismissed the Cardinals, 4-2, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Just as another band of spirited Mets had during their magical mystery tour through Houston and Boston in 1986, claiming pivotal Game 6 victories along the way to the World Series title, these Mets made this Game 6 something to savor. Thanks largely to the multiple talents of matinee idol Jose Reyes and the true grit of a young pitcher from Virginia named John Maine, there will be a Game 7 in this NLCS on Thursday night, right back at Chez Shea. Billy Wagner's ninth-inning brush with danger put those hearts to a brief test, but Wagner survived, and so did the Mets. And now they have a shot at the fifth World Series in franchise history, Detroit waiting with its weapons aligned and loaded. In Game 7, young Oliver Perez goes for the Mets against battle-tested Jeff Suppan, and while that matchup would appear to favor St. Louis, so did Chris Carpenter vs. Maine on Wednesday night. "It won't come down to matchups," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "[Game 7] is going to be all about heart and who wants it more. "Taking nothing away from L.A. or St. Louis, this is what home-field advantage is all about. This place rocks. It's an imposing figure for a team that comes in here." The last time one of these Game 7 showdowns was staged in Queens, those '86 Mets rode their Game 6 comeback for the ages to a late knockout that left New England in tears, putting away the ill-fated Red Sox. "It's a great feeling to play meaningful games like this one," Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran said. "[Thursday] is a game a lot of guys are going to remember for life." Maine pitched the game of his young life with the Mets' season hanging in the balance, outdueling Carpenter as Reyes ignited the New York attack with a homer, two singles and two steals, scoring twice. "He's as much of an MVP as anyone in the league," Shawn Green said of Reyes, the superlative shortstop. A Shea Stadium crowd of 56,334 roared with appreciation as Reyes' first-inning homer carried the momentum Maine brought to the Mets' dugout after escaping a first-inning disturbance that could have capsized New York and taken the edge off that Shea crowd.
With singles by Scott Spiezio and Albert Pujols putting runners at the corners with one out, Maine struck out Jim Edmonds on an 0-2 changeup. After hitting Juan Encarnacion with a pitch to load the bases, Maine went to 2-2 on Scott Rolen before retiring him on a fly ball to right field."The two biggest keys to the game were Maine getting out of trouble and Reyes hitting the home run off Carpenter," Green said. "Those two things set the tone for the game. "Had they scored there and we hadn't answered, the whole atmosphere changes." Instead, the big crowd exhaled as Maine escaped and erupted when Reyes stunned Carpenter, the 2005 National League Cy Young Award winner, with the fourth first-inning leadoff homer in Mets playoff history. "The fans here, if you need that little extra momentum, they will help you out," Maine said. "They will give it to you. It's fun to play in front of these fans." Another disturbance surfaced in the third, when Maine walked Pujols intentionally after a walk and steal by David Eckstein. But again Maine escaped, retiring Edmonds on a fly ball and blowing a fastball past Encarnacion for the third of his five strikeouts. His confidence level rising with each out, Maine departed with one down in the sixth, turning over a 2-0 lead to the Mets' deep and resourceful bullpen. "John pitched a great game for us -- he didn't lose his cool," manager Willie Randolph said. "He did what he wanted to do, just keep us in the ballgame and give us a chance to go to our bullpen."
"Maine had the poise of a Hall of Fame-type pitcher," said Green, who drove in the Mets' second run in the fourth with a single following singles by Beltran and Wright.In the seventh, against ex-Met Braden Looper, the Mets made it 4-0 with a two-out rally started by pinch-hitter Michael Tucker, who singled and stole second. He took third on Reyes' infield hit, and after Reyes stole second, Paul Lo Duca slammed a 2-0 pitch into center for two runs. Maine, who hadn't gotten through the fifth inning in his first two postseason starts, made it one out into the sixth when Randolph decided 98 pitches were enough for the 25-year-old Virginian. Maine departed to a roar from the Shea throng, appreciative of his gritty effort. Chad Bradford fell behind Rolen, 3-0, before inducing him to rap into an inning-ending double play started by Reyes. Maine, acquired from Baltimore last winter in the Kris Benson deal, allowed only the two first-inning hits, walking four (one intentional) and striking out five. Apart from the fact that it happened in October with the Mets in survival mode, it was not that uncharacteristic of Maine. He held hitters to a .212 average and worked 26 consecutive scoreless innings from July 15 to Aug. 12 on his way to a 6-5 record and 3.60 ERA in 90 innings. Another Mets double play ended the seventh, with Guillermo Mota getting pinch-hitter Chris Duncan to ground to second baseman Jose Valentin. Aaron Heilman pitched a scoreless eighth, striking out Edmonds to leave Pujols stranded after a single. That left it to Wagner to finish the job. Wagner promptly yielded a single to Encarnacion and a double to Rolen, both with two strikes. Retiring the next two hitters and on the verge of preserving the shutout, Wagner surrendered another two-strike double to So Taguchi -- who'd homered against Wagner in Game 2. The ordeal was over when David Eckstein grounded to Valentin. "My problem's putting away hitters right now," Wagner said. "I just missed on a [two-strike] slider to Taguchi -- I don't know how he didn't swing at it -- and then hung one. "But we got it done, and now we're playing a Game 7. And that's what you dream of, pitching the ninth inning and getting bum-rushed on your way to the World Series."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.