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Top of Cards' lineup sets the table

Top of Cards' lineup sets the table

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ST. LOUIS -- David Eckstein, the Cardinals' leadoff catalyst, bounced back from his playoff slump. Helped by Preston Wilson, the No. 2 spot yielded offense for the first time in the NLCS in Game 3 on Saturday. Albert Pujols, batting third, laid the foundation for two rallies.

Overall, the top three hitters in the Redbirds lineup all reached base in the first two innings, propelling the Cardinals to an early five-run lead in an eventual 5-0 win over the Mets..

"I thought, throughout, the top did a good job," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Preston had a good game. David walked and singled. Albert did his usual thing."

Eight brilliant innings by Jeff Suppan -- and some solid defensive plays by Eckstein and Pujols in the infield and Wilson in right field -- made the lead stand and the Redbirds, underdogs only a few days ago, enter Game 4 with a 2-1 series lead.

Eckstein, batting just .133 in the postseason and .000 (0-for-7) in the LCS, started the first with a single. Mets starter Steve Trachsel picked him off first, but the hit helped Trachsel, pitching on fumes in his last few starts, to walk Wilson.

Wilson, normally a free swinger, drew a walk off the erratic Trachsel, forcing Carlos Delgado to hold him at first base.

"I am going up there looking for a pitch to drive, but if they are not going to give me anything to drive and they are going to walk me, then I am going to take my walk and let the guys in the middle of the lineup drive me in," Wilson said.

Pujols delivered, bouncing a single through the right side and putting runners at first and second.

Just like in Game 2, Pujols' offense was the fulcrum for another rally. El Hombre struggled early in the NLCS, but delivered two key hits that started a pair of late-inning rallies against the Mets' bullpen.

After a flyout, Scott Spiezio continued his postseason heroics, tripling down the right-field line and giving the Redbirds a 2-0 lead. Still, the fan favorite credited the top of the order for his hit.

"It's great," Spiezio said. "That's how you win games when guys get on base. Eck has been getting on base. Pujols has been doing outstanding, taking his walks, taking his base hits. He has been doing a great job of getting the rally started."

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After a rare homer by Suppan in the bottom of the second -- it was just the second one he has hit in his career -- Eckstein jump-started another attack, taking a walk off Trachsel. It was his third walk of the postseason, but just his fourth since Aug. 16.

"It was good to get the rally going again," he said. "They have been throwing me a lot of strikes recently, but I was patient. We just tried to go out there and take some quality at-bats. We wanted to see some pitches and take some pitches and work the pitcher."

Wilson provided another offensive burst. In the first two games of the series, No. 2 hitters accomplished little, finishing 1-for-8 with two strikeouts.

Wilson, though, atoned for his 1-for-4 effort in Game 1 and Chris Duncan's poor showing in Game 2. He signaled a quick exit for Trachsel, singling hard off the right-hander's thigh.

The ball bounded into the air and landed behind shortstop Jose Reyes, giving the Cardinals two baserunners and putting the crowd of 47,000-plus into a frenzy.

"I was looking for something to hit hard, and he threw me a breaking ball that stayed up enough that I could put a good swing on it," Wilson said.

Trachsel hobbled for a little and then, visibly hurt, couldn't find the strike zone against Pujols. Several of the pitches were close, but a more patient Pujols took a walk on four straight pitches.

"Walking a good hitting ballclub like that is not going to help you," Mets manager Willie Randolph said.

Coupled with Trachsel's injury, the free pass forced Randolph to go early to a taxed bullpen that was forced to throw over half of Game 2.

"He has carried the team in a lot of different ways," Spiezio said of Pujols. "This offense has a lot of different weapons. There have been times where we have relied on him and there have been other times when we have picked him up, too. We try to go up there and string a whole bunch of good at-bats together."

And the Redbirds picked up Pujols, stringing another run together. After a Darren Oliver wild pitch scored Eckstein, the middle of the order drove in another run. This time it wasn't Spiezio with the credit. Instead, Jim Edmonds manufactured a run, bouncing a ground ball to the right side.

Afterward, Randolph had trouble pinpointing a turning point in the offensive explosion that helped win Game 3 for the Redbirds. He passed all of the credit to the top of the order.

"Nothing in particular," the Mets' manager said of the first two innings. "They came out, the crowd was loud, and they fed off the energy. They just came out of the chute and got on board real quick. They came out and took it to us early."

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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