Given a clear path to the National League pennant, with their ace on the mound and a rookie pitching for the opponent, the Cardinals were unable to convert on Wednesday night. Chris Carpenter took the first postseason loss of his career as the Cardinals fell to the Mets, 4-2, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium.
The series is even at three games apiece with a winner-take-all seventh game at Shea Stadium on Thursday at 7:19 p.m. CT.
It should scarcely surprise that the Cards didn't put away their first chance at the pennant. This is the same team that took until the last day of the season to clinch the division title after holding a seven-game lead. It took a day longer than it hoped to win its Division Series. Now it will have to go the distance if it is to make its second World Series trip in three years.
"We get in on the last day of the year, maybe we'll get into the World Series on the last day of the NLCS," Carpenter said. "We'll see what happens."
Historical precedent is daunting, and that may be putting things gently.
Since the League Championship Series expanded to a best-of-seven format in 1985, only three of 11 teams have won Game 7 after losing Game 6. No team has won Game 7 of an LCS on the road after losing Game 6.
The last time any team won the seventh game of a postseason series on the road after losing Game 6 was the 1975 World Series, when the Reds beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Since then, 11 teams have tried to win a Game 7 on the road after losing Game 6 in the other team's ballpark; all have been unsuccessful.
"Tonight was a game that we would have liked to have gotten, obviously, to end it right now," said Scott Rolen, who doubled in a two-run ninth-inning rally. "But I don't think they're, on their side, surprised that they won tonight to go to Game 7. We're going to have to beat them. They're not going to give us Game 7, I can guarantee you that."
Wednesday night's game revealed its colors instantly. Rookie John Maine loaded the bases in the first, but escaped with a scoreless tie. In the bottom half of the inning, Jose Reyes smoked a leadoff home run to start Shea shaking. The Mets converted the first possible offensive chance they had; the Cardinals missed every single possibility that came their way until the ninth inning.
"[Maine] made some good pitches in the first inning and we got a little excited," said Jim Edmonds, whose strikeout was a critical point in the first. "Hopefully, tomorrow we'll calm down a little bit and get back to work."
Maine handed the Cardinals two exceptional opportunities in the early innings, but St. Louis couldn't capitalize. Consecutive one-out singles in the first brought up the middle of the order before Maine struck out Edmonds. The rookie hit Juan Encarnacion with a pitch and escaped by getting Rolen to fly out.
"I think it was a huge deal," Rolen said. "Without a doubt. But you can either kick yourself or tip your cap, one or the other. He did a nice job, too. I had one pitch to hit with two strikes, and he jammed me a little bit and I flew out. I had an opportunity to change the course of the game in the first inning, and it didn't happen."
NLCS Game 7s
|*Home team in bold|
A pair of walks, one intentional, led to men on the corners with one out in the third, but again Maine escaped, this time with a flyout by Edmonds and an Encarnacion strikeout.
Through three innings, Maine had already thrown 61 pitches and the Cards had put five men on base. All those runners, however, were stranded, and New York held the 1-0 lead on the single swing of Reyes' bat.
Maine grew steadier after that, rolling through the fourth and fifth and into the sixth without allowing a Cardinal to reach second base. Meanwhile, three Mets singles in the fourth doubled the lead and deepened the Cardinals' hole. Carpenter finished with a much better line than the last time he pitched -- two runs on seven hits over six innings -- but took the defeat.
Carpenter was lifted for pinch-hitter Chris Duncan in the seventh after 76 pitches. Duncan hit into a double play, signifying the kind of night it was for the Redbirds.
"I was fine all night long," Carpenter said. "I kept locating pitches and they scrapped a run there in the fourth, but I felt good all night -- much better than I did the first time [in a Game 2 no-decision]."
Two runs against St. Louis reliever Braden Looper looked like window dressing at the time, but proved critical when the Cards closed to 4-2 against Mets closer Billy Wagner in the ninth.
Looper retired the first two batters of the seventh before Michael Tucker singled. Yadier Molina's throw sailed high on a pitchout as Tucker was stealing, and Reyes beat out an infield single after that. Paul Lo Duca stroked a two-run single to make it 4-0.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.