Ryan lifts Cards over Mets in extras

Ryan lifts Cards over Mets in extras

NEW YORK -- Minutes after the joy, there was stress.

Brendan Ryan had no sooner left the field after blasting his first career home run -- also, conveniently, an 11th-inning game-winner for the Cardinals -- than he was whisked off by teammates yelling at him not to shirk his responsibilities.

So Ryan -- ever green, ever the rookie -- rushed into the visitors' clubhouse, where 25 men wielding beer cans and grins ambushed him at the door.

"I was told there was a big meeting I was late for," Ryan said. "So I come in and everybody's there, and there was beer flying everywhere. It was pretty funny."

Funny enough that he didn't even mind the drinks soaking him to the core -- not after his homer shot the Cardinals past the Mets, 5-3, transforming clubhouse into frat house, and rookie into king.

"I just couldn't believe it really happened," Ryan said. "I was just excited to come back in and get some high-fives. That was pretty much the best moment of my life right there."

And it wasn't too bad for the Cardinals, either. A sense of ugliness had settled over the team not too long before, when closer Jason Isringhausen grabbed a seemingly safe game and thrust it into the realm of nightmares.

Isringhausen had come on with two outs in the eighth to cool a fire and did just that, staying on to mow down the first two Mets in the ninth. But a walk to Shawn Green put the tying run on, and Jose Valentin was all too eager to send a double smoking down the left-field line to send the game to extra innings.

It was not a good place to be. The Cards were already without the services of top setup man Ryan Franklin, who threw 30 pitches in Monday's extra-inning affair. And they received just six innings -- albeit six extremely effective innings -- out of starter Todd Wellemeyer. They weren't too keen on the idea of waging a bullpen battle with the Mets, but with Isringhausen's blown save, they didn't have much of a choice.

Unless, that is, someone could come and bail them out.

"When you fall behind a hitter like Valentin, you have to throw a strike, and he got a hit," Isringhausen said. "But in the same sense, I left him at third. So that gave us a chance, and gave Mr. Ryan a chance to be a hero for the night."

The unlikeliest of heroes, at that. Ryan entered the game hitting just .158 in limited duty, though he was .250 in at-bats off lefties, such as losing pitcher Scott Schoeneweis. He remained just a year removed from short-season Class A ball, and he had just six career home runs to his credit at any level of professional baseball.

He was only even in the lineup, in fact, after Scott Rolen's faulty left foot kept him off the card for the second straight game -- and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa made it clear before the game that had Rolen been healthy, Ryan would've been riding the bench.

He also made it clear that after Tuesday night, he won't even think about making the same mistake.

"I just knew he was going to do something dramatic," La Russa joked. "He'll play [Wednesday], even if Rolen's healthy."

He likely earned that playing time even before the homer -- though it certainly drowned out memories of all else. Ryan had first lit an offensive spark in the seventh, singling to start the rally that would eventually score him for a short-lived lead. And he came through again in the eighth, bouncing a run-scoring single up the middle to give the Cards a lead yet again.

Yet, he wasn't brought here for offense. He was brought here for defense. Ryan -- a shortstop by trade -- seemed like a natural at second, starting a nifty double play in the fourth and then extending like a wide receiver to snare Valentin's hanging liner in the seventh. Not bad for a guy who hadn't played an inning at second in his professional career before making his debut there earlier this month at Houston.

"He's showing a lot of ability, and he's showing a lot of big-league cool," La Russa said. "You watch him, and you get the respect based on what you see."

La Russa paused before continuing, this time with a wisp of regret.

"It's going to be tough to send him out."

Turns out Ryan may still have to wake up from this dream. With starting shortstop David Eckstein due back from the disabled list Friday, Ryan remains the heavy favorite to head back down to Triple-A. The Cardinals already have a pair of veteran middle infielders in Aaron Miles and Adam Kennedy, and don't have much room for another. That was the plan all along, and that remains the plan -- no matter how many kinks Ryan throws into it.

"I know [Eckstein's] coming off," Ryan said. "I think Thursday's his last day. That may also probably be my last day, too. If I do go back Friday, then that's fine. I'll be ready next time I come up."

Still, even if Tuesday's magic can't last, Ryan still has his memories. He's got the home-run ball, neatly tucked into his toiletry kit. He's got his beer-soaked shirt, of course, even if that stench must fade with time. He's got his cell phone, with 16 text messages on queue before he could even stop to check.

And he's got about 12 hours to bask in all that before heading to the park for another go.

"That's the funny thing," Ryan said. "When you play every day, it's like I just want to sit back and enjoy this for a minute. It means nothing [Wednesday], you know?"

Yet time -- the same time that pushes incessantly onward, threatening to strip Ryan's hit of its luster -- also has a way of preserving history. And whether or not his home run retains any importance come season's end, it's a blast that the Cardinals probably -- and Ryan certainly -- aren't likely to forget soon.

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