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Closer Look

Mets' Hampton foils Cards with a seventh-inning save

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Latest: Thursday October 12, 2000 01:41 AM

  Mike Hampton Mike Hampton stepped up when he had to in Game 1. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

By John Donovan, CNNSI.com

ST. LOUIS -- There comes a point in just about every ballgame when a starting pitcher stares down the heart of the batting order with the game hanging in the balance.

For the New York Mets' Mike Hampton on Wednesday, that came in the bottom of the seventh inning with a runner on base, a pinch-hitter up and a seemingly too-slim 3-0 lead.

And then it came again later that inning, with runners on first and second with one out. And, finally, with runners on the corners and two outs and the St. Louis Cardinals' best postseason hitter at the plate.

"I think we had some good at-bats," St. Louis first baseman Will Clark said. "We put some balls in play, we hit them hard, had some 'at-'em' balls."

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they didn't put enough balls in play when it counted -- like, in the bottom of the seventh. And that proved to be the difference in the Mets' 6-2 win in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

"If [Hampton] didn't get out of those jams, and we knock in some runs," St. Louis right fielder Eric Davis said, "it's a different story."

The visiting Mets took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh, with the bottom of the Cardinals' order due up. Hampton, after getting out of a dicey bases-loaded situation in the first, had not been in any serious trouble since.

But St. Louis third baseman Placido Polanco singled up the middle to start the bottom of the seventh, and Cards' manager Tony La Russa inserted Fernando Tatis as a pinch-hitter for St. Louis starter Darryl Kile.

Hampton worked Tatis exclusively on the outside portion of the plate, getting him to strike out on a 2-2 pitch. But Hampton's troubles had just started.

With Polanco dancing around off first, leadoff hitter Fernando Vina drew a walk off Hampton, giving the Cards men on first and second with one out. Shortstop Edgar Renteria came up, with the Mets' Turk Wendell warming in the bullpen, with the best chance to knock Hampton out of the game.

Renteria connected with the first pitch from Hampton and sent a screamer deep to right. But it was only deep enough for a fly ball to New York's Timo Perez, who cradled the fly for the second out as Polanco took third.

Now came the really hard part.

Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals' hero in the three-game sweep over the Atlanta Braves in the division series, came to bat with a chance to tie the score. Edmonds was hitting .529 at that point in the postseason. The first pitch he saw from Hampton, he lifted a deep shot to left-center.

"I didn't breathe," Hampton said afterward. "I thought if I was going to breathe, it might have pushed the ball over the fence. I just wanted that ball to come down so bad."

It did, in left fielder Benny Agbayani's glove, some 370 feet from home plate nearly against the wall, and the inning was over.

"I've hit that ball a few times and it's been a home run," Edmonds said. "It was a cold night, the wind was blowing in a little. That's the way it goes."

It was the last pitch Hampton threw for the night. It was, as it turned out, just enough.


 
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