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Highs and lows for New York

NLCS GAME 3: CARDINALS 8, METS 2. Andy Benes shuts down the Mets over eight innings to keeps the Cardinals' hopes alive.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


NEW YORK -- It didn't take the St. Louis Cardinals long to get back into the NL Championship Series.

Seven pitches to be exact.

A single, a mishandled bunt and a double led to a two-run first inning, which led to an 8-2 victory Saturday, which led to a drastically different outlook for this best-of-seven series.

"That was big," St. Louis' Will Clark said. "That was a big deal for us. We had been scuffling with runners in scoring position, and we came out there in the first inning and all of a sudden, whack, we got two runs."

Just like that, the reports of the Cardinals' demise look to be as greatly exaggerated as the fevered expectation of a Subway Series. (An obviously disappointing development to the folks calling WFAN sports radio Saturday to discuss the potential Mets-Yankees pitching matchups.)

The two-run first inning, a strong eight-inning outing by starter Andy Benes and a pair of key double plays gave the Cardinals exactly what they needed: a victory.

"I think everybody in our clubhouse thought we had a good opportunity to win," Benes said. "Two-one is okay."

Having lost the first two games at home, the Cardinals seemed to be written off. At least, they were in the league-produced, pregame media notes, which said, "The Mets are just the fourth team, third consecutive, to take a 3-0 lead in the NLCS since the best-of-seven format was adopted in 1985."

The Cardinals need to win just one of the next two to bring the series back to St. Louis for a sixth and possible seventh game. The odds, though, still are against them. Of the 19 teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home, three have come back to win.

"We're not worried about catching up," centerfielder Jim Edmonds said. "We're just trying to win one game at a time."

Benes, pitching for the first time since Oct. 1, had as much to do with the victory as anybody. He went to the mound with cartilage damage in his right knee, a condition that requires him to wear a brace and to have the fluid drained before each start. And he took with him an unimpressive post-season history, going 0-1 with a 6.44 ERA in seven appearances.

"To do what he did today, he gave us a chance in this series," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "Personally for him, he can stand up and be proud. He made a heck of a statement."

Benes, a quiet and religious type to begin with, wasn't too concerned about statements or exclamation points.

After being passed over by the Diamondbacks in their playoff series with the Mets last year, he said he was just thankful for the opportunity to pitch before the 55,693 at Shea Stadium and to put into play some of the things he learned about pitching in the playoffs.

"I believe I had a divine appointment," he said.

"He made really good pitches when he had to," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "He hit the corners with his off-speed pitches when he was behind in the count and he worked his fastball on both sides of the plate. He looked like Andy Benes."

The Cardinals, who went 3-for-28 with men in scoring position in the first two games, grabbed the 2-0 lead off Rick Reed when Fernando Vina opened the game with a single to left, Edgar Renteria reached when third baseman Robin Ventura booted his bunt and Edmonds dropped a double just inside the leftfield line.

"It took a little pressure off," Edmonds said.

"I think it did a lot for us," La Russa said. "It gave us a lift."

The Mets came right back to put men on first and third with none out, but Benes held them to one run by getting Mike Piazza to ground into a double play and snaring Ventura's liner.

With a 5-1 lead and Reed out of the game in the fourth, the Cardinals tried to break it open by sending Mark McGwire up to pinch-hit with the bases loaded and two outs. But the Mets got McGwire out on a fly to left, and the momentum of that event seemed to work in their favor as they promptly loaded the bases on a walk and two singles.

But Vina grabbed Jay Payton's grounder and started a heady double play, running Benny Agbayani back to first, then flipping to Clark, who tagged the base for one out and Agbayani for the other.

"That was pretty solid," Clark said. "That was damage control on our part. That was pretty big.'

While the Cardinals tacked on three in the fifth against former Devil Rays reliever Rick White, Benes got on a roll, retiring 12 straight and 13 of his final 14.

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