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Hampton's moxie carries Mets

The Crystal River product makes clutch pitches in a 6-2 Game 1 win over the Cards.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000


photo
[AP photo]
St. Louis Cardinals' Shawon Dunston just misses catching the home run ball of New York Mets' Todd Zeile in the ninth inning of game.
ST. LOUIS -- It was like watching the tightrope walker at the circus, the one who suddenly begins teetering on the edge of disaster only to right himself and reach the other side safely.

Mike Hampton wobbled this way and that, bringing screams of anticipation from the red-clad crowd of 52,255 at Busch Stadium. But when his performance ended, the Mets pitcher was unharmed.

His seven innings of six-hit shutout ball, combined with Mike Piazza's first RBI of the post-season and late home runs by Todd Zeile and Jay Payton, carried the Mets to a 6-2 victory Wednesday night over the Cardinals in the opener of their best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

When the Cardinals put the tying runs on in the seventh inning, Jim Edmonds hit a two-out fly ball to left that had the fans out of their seats and Hampton out of breath.

Benny Agbayani sprinted back and made the catch a step from the fence. The explosive roar vanished like air out of a burst balloon.

"I didn't breathe, I'll tell you that," Hampton said of what turned out to be his final pitch. "I thought if I was going to breathe, it might have pushed the ball over the fence. ... I just wanted that ball to come down so bad."

What had been cheers turned to groans in the ninth when Zeile led off against reliever Mike James with a 380-foot drive, about 10 feet farther than Edmonds', for a home run. A single by Agbayani and a next-pitch homer by Payton broke the game open and sent half the crowd into the night.

For the wild-card Mets, wresting home-field advantage from the Central champions gave them a head start on the run to the World Series, a Subway Series if the Yankees can defeat Seattle. In the past seven NL Championship Series, the winner of Game 1 has advanced to the World Series.

"That was a big win," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "Seven fabulous innings" by Hampton. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it "pretty impressive. ... We had our chances, but with men in scoring position, he made some quality pitches."

Hampton was less impressed. "It wasn't pretty, but it worked," he said. "As the game went on, I got a little more comfortable. ... As good as the Cardinals are, they never let you breathe."

Hampton, who also contributed to the Mets' offense with an infield single that led to their third run, simply was doing with his left arm what right-handed Bobby J. Jones and several other pitchers had done before him.

Mets pitchers had a string of 18 scoreless post-season innings. Hampton and relievers John Franco and Armando Benitez extended it to 262/3 before the Cardinals scored on what should have been the last out.

Ray Lankford doubled, and with two away, Edgar Renteria's grounder to short was thrown away by reserve shortstop Kurt Abbott, who came on after Mike Bordick was hit by a pitch. Lankford scored, and Renteria came around when Edmonds' single to right skipped past Timo Perez. Edmonds advanced to third on the error. "If they're going to score," Valentine deadpanned, "that's a great time to score."

Hampton was as cool as the autumn evening in the big ballpark. Not until the seventh inning did the Mets bullpen even stir. The offense, meanwhile, was economical, getting eight hits but making most of them count against Darryl Kile.

La Russa chose Kile over Rick Ankiel so the rookie left-hander wouldn't have to deal with the pressure of a series opener and, perhaps more important, so Kile could pitch the fourth and seventh games if the series goes the distance.

"I like the way he pitched, too," La Russa said. "I thought (Kile and Hampton) were both impressive and tough to hit. But our guy gets the loss."

The Mets jumped on Kile for two runs before he could get two outs. Perez opened the game with a double down the rightfield line, and Kile wild-pitched him to third.

He walked Edgardo Alfonzo, and Piazza sent Perez home and Alfonzo to third with a first-pitch double down the leftfield line. "You know," Valentine said, "we are a pretty good team. And when Mike is hitting, we are a very good team."

Robin Ventura hit Kile's next pitch to left for a sacrifice fly and a 2-0 Mets lead.

"To start the game with them down two, that's the way we like to play," Valentine said. "They usually get guys down early in the game. We got on the scoreboard and had a pretty relexed feeling the whole game."

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