10/14/06 2:54 AM ET
Cards' bats pick right time to awaken
After Game 1 shutout, Pujols & Co. storm back to even series
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
Redbirds general manager Walt Jocketty was among the last to leave, and the relief was written all over his face. Earlier on Friday night, a lot of people were wondering about the team he had built. They weren't hitting. The National League Central champions seemed headed for a return trip to St. Louis with a 2-0 NL Championship Series deficit against the Mets.
"We weren't giving in," Jocketty said. "We were really battling there down to the end, and that's what we've done all year. This team has been through a lot all season, and to go back with a split was important.
"We took some really good at-bats: [David] Eckstein's, [So] Taguchi's, Albert [Pujols']. I think that was pretty important when you look back at it."
In a series that looms as a stark contrast to an American League Championship Series that could be swept by the Tigers on Saturday afternoon, the NLCS moves to Busch on Saturday knotted at 1-1 thanks to an offensive breakout by the Cards that was sorely needed. Now St. Louis goes back to face Steve Trachsel, Oliver Perez and a short-rested Tom Glavine after having just forced the Mets to use seven pitchers in Game 2.
Let the record show that it all began with two outs in the top of the seventh and the Mets holding a 6-4 lead. That's when Pujols -- who had been 0-for-5 with a walk in the NLCS while facing a dearth of good pitches -- worked a memorable 11-pitch at-bat against reliever Guillermo Mota. It started with three straight balls on upper-90-mph gas, then a called strike, and then six consecutive fouls. Finally, on the 11th pitch, Pujols stroked a single to left. It was followed by a Jim Edmonds walk, and then Scott Spiezio's game-tying triple off the top of the wall in right field.
"Albert had a great at-bat there -- turned a fastball around and got it down the line," Spiezio said. "They've been pitching him tough, and he's been taking his walks or his singles, whatever it takes. You know how team-oriented he is.
"You know, great hitters have to do that because they don't get a lot of pitches to hit in big situations. You see [Barry] Bonds scoring a lot of runs because he gets walked -- smart enough to take a walk, smart enough to take a single when he has to. And Albert has been doing a great job in the postseason, getting on for us and starting rallies. That's pretty big for a guy that's used to driving in 140 runs a year and hitting 50 home runs, to have to take those walks on a big stage like this."
For Pujols, who left without talking to reporters, that at-bat started a trend that carried over through the end of the game. Preston Wilson came in to pinch-hit in the eighth against Aaron Heilman, and even though he struck out, it was on the seventh pitch. And the coup de grace came in the first at-bat of the ninth, when Taguchi worked closer Billy Wagner for nine pitches and then deposited the game-winning homer over the wall in left. Taguchi got in an 0-2 hole, then hit a foul, then took three straight balls, then hit two fouls, and then delivered the Ozzie Smith-like blow to win a huge NLCS game.
"Well, one of So's qualities is he really plays well late in the game," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Ever since he first got here, September -- I don't even remember the year now; 2001, 2002, whatever it was -- in September, he got a couple big hits. He plays well late. In that at-bat, he fouled a couple of pitches where he was getting the head out. So he's not intimidated at all by pressure situations."
It was a leadoff hit. The Cardinals waited until the final inning of the two-game set at Shea to produce one. But like their night in general, good things finally came to those who waited.
"I think the Cardinals, they battled back and they got some tough hits and must have fouled off 60, 70 pitches and tried to put the ball back in the game, and that's how you get back, scratching and clawing," said Mets manager Willie Randolph, who saw plenty of that when he was coaching under Joe Torre with the Yankees. "I think we had a few hits, things that basically had to do with missing location. We had some decent pitches at times, but I give them a lot of credit for battling back. Any time you fight balls off like that and get two-out hits, you know, you kind of tip your hat."
Eckstein -- as Jocketty mentioned -- was one of those who extended the night one pitch at a time. Witness his final at-bat of the night in the eighth. Although he was retired on a groundout to second, it came on the 12th pitch. With no off-day, those are like kidney punches in the early rounds by a boxer -- they can catch up to you later.
As with others, Eckstein was talking about the 11-pitch at-bat by Pujols, who then proceeded to double in his last time up -- giving him a club-high 28 career NLCS hits.
"He's done a lot of things for us," Eckstein said. "He's the one who's gone out there, and everybody thinks about him as the big guy going deep, but the other day against San Diego, it was the walk that got everything going. Tonight, it was just him battling and finding a way to get a hit. He gets a lot of things going and he's got guys behind him who can hit also."
Suddenly, it is a different series. After being shut out on four hits in the opener, after struggling to keep up with the Mets' bats for much of Game 2 on a night when ace Chris Carpenter was off his game, St. Louis found the only way it could get back into this series. Patience. Veteran savvy.
This is a Cardinals team that is in the NLCS for the third straight year, two years removed from a World Series appearance, nagged frequently by questions about how good it really is. Now it's a series, and the NLCS is coming to a new ballpark for the first time.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.