The Cardinals' relief corps had been an absolute thus far in the postseason, allowing just one earned run in 20 2/3 innings before Sunday. But after Anthony Reyes walked a four-inning high wire, the bullpen was summarily drilled.
Cardinals relievers gave up 10 runs in a three-inning span as the Mets created the first laugher of this NLCS. Brad Thompson permitted three runs, while Josh Hancock faced five batters, with all of them reaching base and scoring.
"The balls they had to hit, we're capable of doing better things with," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "It was a rough night for especially the two right-handers. They're kicking themselves, beating themselves up in the clubhouse. They're both capable of doing things differently and getting better results."
Facing a pitcher who endured a brutal season, the Cardinals had a superb chance to take a dominating lead in the best-of-seven series. New York left-hander Oliver Perez had the highest season ERA of any pitcher ever to start a postseason game. Instead, the Cards lost the home-field advantage they had gained and face a much more uphill push for the remainder of the series.
Had St. Louis been able to record a win against Perez in Game 4, the Redbirds would have had a potential clinching game in their home ballpark on Monday. Now if they are to advance to their second World Series in three years, the finishing blow will have to be struck on the visitors' turf.
"When you look over at that team, and I think when they look over here, to think that it's going to be a four- or five-game series probably isn't reasonable," said Scott Rolen. "They have home-field advantage. That kind of puts us behind the eight-ball a little bit, but we'll deal with it."
Reyes had a difficult go of it in his first career postseason start, but emerged relatively unscathed, allowing two runs on three hits -- though he walked four. He was touched for a pair of home runs, including the first of two on the night by Carlos Beltran, but limited the damage for the most part. Reyes stranded five runners on base in his four frames.
However, it took Reyes 86 pitches to record 12 outs, so when his spot came up in the batting order in the fifth, La Russa went to a pinch-hitter.
"It's just a credit to them," Reyes said. "They battled, and when I got ahead, they kept battling. I tried to put them away. It was just tough."
When the skipper handed the ball over to the relief corps, a tight game turned quickly. Right-hander Thompson started the fifth in a 2-2 game and was greeted rudely when Paul Lo Duca reached on a Ronnie Belliard error at second base.
Belliard ranged wide to his right and gloved the ball, but couldn't pick it up cleanly and the catcher was easily safe. Considering that Belliard's defense had been as reliable as his team's relief pitching in the playoffs, it was a bad omen.
After Beltran's single, Delgado cranked his third home run of the series. He pounded a sinker on the outside part of the plate for a majestic opposite-field shot that made it 5-2 Mets. Another single chased Thompson.
"[Delgado] was in a hitter's count and I wanted to go to my strength," Thompson said. "It happened to be a ball that he could handle. You get ahead of him, maybe that pitch isn't so dangerous -- he's not diving after it."
Left-handed reliever Randy Flores escaped without further damage, however, and the Cards pulled back within two runs on David Eckstein's solo homer in the bottom of the fifth. In the sixth, though, the game got out of hand.
Two singles and a walk loaded the bases against Hancock, and Delgado gave New York a 7-3 lead with a double that bounced into the visiting bullpen. His five RBIs set a new Mets postseason record, and Delgado is rapidly closing in on 2004 nemesis Beltran as the Met that Cards fans least like to see come to the plate.
Postseason home run leaders
|Jim Edmonds tied Chipper Jones for ninth on the career postseason home run list with his solo shot in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday.|
|* Through games of 10/15/06|
Another walk followed Delgado's double, and Hancock was done -- but the Mets weren't. Shawn Green singled in a run against left-hander Tyler Johnson, and Jose Valentin finished the assault with a three-run double for an 11-3 score. Two Cards homers in the bottom of the sixth cut the gap to six, but Beltran's second long ball, off right-hander Braden Looper, gave New York a dozen runs for the game.
"Everyone knows that they can do that kind of damage, but everyone also knows that we can do the damage control," Johnson said. "It's not inevitable. It is possible for relievers in the bullpen to go strong for a long time. Tonight happened to be the night where the outcome wasn't what we wanted."
The way the innings turned out, St. Louis ended up with right-handed relievers facing the predominantly lefty core of the Mets' lineup in both the fifth and sixth. The hope had been that either Thompson or Hancock would be able to last more than an inning, but neither righty was able to last even a full frame.
In something of a change of pace, the Cardinals turned in a solid offensive night against a left-handed pitcher with their performance against Perez. Eckstein and Jim Edmonds both went deep, and the Cards banged out nine hits and five runs against Perez in 5 2/3 innings, but the performance was obscured in defeat. The clubs combined for seven home runs, equaling a record for a postseason game.
St. Louis is 1-2 in games started by opposing lefties this postseason after posting a 23-34 record in the regular season -- second worst in the NL.