NEW YORK -- It was the Mets' plan, expressed in a variety of ways, to play Game 6 of the National League Championship Series Wednesday night at Shea Stadium with the confident abandon and aggression that characterized their thrilling rise to elite status in 2006.

The trick was to do this with their season on the line, one unhappy ending away from a winter of wondering what went wrong against the Cardinals -- a team that won 14 fewer regular-season games and wobbled down the stretch, impaired by late-season injuries.

If this was a time for some homespun philosophy, Carlos Delgado, the Mets' articulate conscience, was there, as always, to deliver.

"If you start messing with the game," Delgado said in the aftermath of Wednesday's 4-2 Game 5 loss in St. Louis, "the game's going to mess with you."

This seemed to be Delgado's way of saying that the only way to approach a game of this magnitude is as normally as possible -- unburdened, free and easy, without overreacting to a bad break here, a bad bounce there.

"Sometimes good teams have to face some adversity and overcome some adversity," Delgado said.

No player has been more valuable to his team in October than the beacon at first base for the Mets. Delgado was batting .406 through eight games with four homers and 11 RBIs. Delgado has been better than the best, the man who plays his position for the Cardinals: Albert Pujols.

Having waited 12 distinguished seasons to reach the grand postseason stage, Delgado doesn't want it to end just yet. This is what he spent his life preparing for, the opportunity to lead a team to a championship with his bat and his presence.

"It's a grinding schedule," Delgado said. "You play 162 games, through injuries, pitchers going down, guys coming in and stepping up.

"In the first round, El Duque [Orlando Hernandez] goes down. We already don't have Pedro [Martinez]. Then Cliff [Floyd] goes down. It happens in baseball. You just go out and play. Don't make excuses.

"We beat the Dodgers. This team does not quit. We're going to come out and play hard, play good baseball. We're not concerned about Game 7. We have to go win a game. No excuses."

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Different game: While Delgado has raised his game to meet the elevated stakes, the youthful stars on the left side of a magical infield have not soared as they'd hoped.

Shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright are batting a combined .218 in the postseason.

Reyes through eight games had a .289 on-base percentage and .229 batting average, scoring five runs and stealing one base in two attempts. He has not been the force of nature who terrorized opponents all season.

Wright was batting .207 with one homer and five RBIs, his .414 slugging percentage nowhere near his .531 season mark. He has not driven the ball with the consistent impact that has made him one of the game's breakout stars, alongside Reyes.

"David is obviously trying a little too hard," manager Willie Randolph said. "That's what I see, and that's natural.

"Until you go through the process, you need to learn how to channel some of that energy. He's had some decent at-bats, but he seems a little over-anxious at times. I think David's going to come up big for us before too long -- hopefully, tonight."

Fatherly wisdom: Randolph has the patience and understanding of a wise parent with his young stars. He knows how good they are, what they can do. He also knows it's a process.

"Any time you're a young player like that," Randolph said, "you're starting your career and get a chance to taste what winning feels like, this is an unbelievable and valuable experience.

"You go through your growing pains and learn how to deal with the atmosphere and the anxieties of it sometimes. But this is what sets up champions and gives you the feel of what it means to be a champion."

Randolph was a coach with the Yankees when Derek Jeter and his friends took those early steps toward greatness.

"I remember Bernie [Williams] and Derek and [Jorge] Posada and all those guys went through the same type of thing," Randolph said. "It's going to be a positive experience for [Reyes and Wright], win or lose. But we win it all, it's going to be even sweeter for them, because it will lay the foundation of what they should be expecting every year -- or most years, anyway."

No stop signs: The Mets have stolen (and attempted) just two bases in five NLCS games -- one each by Carlos Beltran and Shawn Green. This by a club that led the NL with 146 steals, and the leader of its running game hasn't been running.

The inactivity of Reyes, who has six hits and one walk in the series, raises eyebrows -- and questions. This, after all, is a man who led the league with 64 steals in 81 attempts.

"Nothing's held him back," Randolph said. "Sometimes you have to give credit to the pitchers for changing their rhythm and cadence, [for] holding the ball and quick-pitching, stepping off. All those things upset the rhythm of any base-stealer.

"In the playoffs, you can't just run wild, either. It's a little bit different than the regular season."

Another factor is the quick, powerful arm of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, arguably the league's best in shutting down a running game.

No Game 7 starter yet: It could be Darren Oliver. It could be Oliver Perez. It could be Steve Trachsel. Or it could be a combination of the above.

Randolph was making no commitment Wednesday to a Game 7 starter for the most practical of reasons -- he had no idea what it would take in Game 6 to arrange a Game 7 on Thursday night.

The Cards have Jeff Suppan, who shut out the Mets on three hits in eight innings of Game 3, ready to go in Game 7.

"We're going to see how things play out," Randolph said. "Everyone is just about available [for Game 6], except maybe Tom Glavine. We'll see what happens at the end of the game here, and we'll make a choice tonight or tomorrow."

Motown bound? Asked if he had a special pregame speech prepared for the Mets, Randolph was armed with a response.

"No," he said. "Our travel plans for Friday are what we are going to talk about."

Clearly, the manager had his mind on Detroit, not Club Med.