Alive and well
Benes holds Mets in check, pitches Cards back into NLCS
St. Louis was shut down by southpaws Mike Hampton and Al Leiter in the first two games of the National League Championship Series but battered righthander Rick Reed for five runs in 3 1/3 innings en route to an easy 8-2 triumph over the Mets.
The Cardinals were a major league-best 78-44 against righthanders this season and wasted little time getting to Reed (0-1), who was tagged for eight hits. St. Louis, which also was an NL-best 38-20 in day games, is trying to become the first team in NLCS history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home.
Buoyed by a great effort from starter Andy Benes (1-0), who did not appear in the Division Series, the Cardinals can draw even on Sunday night, when the Mets start Bobby Jones, another righthander.
"Obviously, this was a must win," Cardinals first baseman Will Clark said. "Now we're down 2-1 and we got our ace going tomorrow."
"It was a very frustrating day for us, but we knew this wasn't going to be easy," Mets catcher Mike Piazza said.
Benes allowed two runs and six singles over eight innings. The 33-year-old righthander walked three and struck out five in winning for the first time in seven career postseason starts.
"All we can do is take the ball and go as hard as we can," Benes said. "You never know what's going to happen in the game. I didn't really think too much about that. I was thinking more about their lineup."
"He threw really good pitches when he had to," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "The time we had them on the ropes, we couldn't put them away. He was hitting corners, off-speed pitches when he was behind in the count. Worked his fastball both sides of the plate, played Andy Benes."
Reed, who pitched well in Game Three of the NLDS against San Francisco, was awful today. He allowed a leadoff single to Fernando Vina in the first inning and Gold Glove winner Robin Ventura booted a slow roller to third base. Jim Edmonds, who was 2-for-9 in the first two games, doubled into the left-field corner for a 2-0 lead.
"I wasn't really looking for anything there," Edmonds said. "I just got a pitch on the outside half and tried to put it in play."
After a single by Clark put runners on the corners, Reed escaped further damage by striking out the next three batters. New York had a chance to regain the momentum in the bottom of the first as rookie Timoniel Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo opened the frame with singles. But with runners at first and third, Piazza bounced into a double play and Ventura lined back to the mound.
"It was a tough two-strike pitch that was tough to lay off and I just couldn't put it in a hole," Piazza said. "We were obviously hoping for more than one run in that inning."
"I think it was a huge play at the time to get a double play there," La Russa said. "When that double play was over, the score was only 2-1, so it was not the time to relax."
St. Louis pushed its lead to 4-1 in the third. Edgar Renteria singled and Clark walked one out later. Ray Lankford plated a run with a single and Fernando Tatis lifted a sacrifice fly for a three-run lead.
Benes helped his cause with a one-out single in the fourth and Vina and Renteria followed with base hits to produce a run and finish Reed. Lefthander Glendon Rusch came on and struck out Edmonds. Clark was hit by a pitch to load the bases and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa called on Mark McGwire.
But Rusch got baseball's single-season home run leader to fly out to left and the Mets appeared ready to capitalize on the momentum swing in the bottom of the inning.
Ventura walked and Todd Zeile singled to right. Benny Agbayani bounced a single up the middle to load the bases, but rookie Jay Payton, the Game Two hero, bounced into a double play. Mike Bordick walked, but Benes retired pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton on a fly ball to center field.
"I was looking for a fastball middle in," Payton said. "The pitch was on the outside and I wasn't thinking right field. I was just able to dribble it to the right side."
"It was a fun situation," McGwire said. "I was just hoping after I made out that it wouldn't change the momentum to their side. I'm glad Andy went back out there and set them down in the bottom of the inning."
Rick White, a right-hander, replaced Rusch and St. Louis went right back to work. Tatis led off with a double and J.D. Drew and Carlos Hernandez followed with singles for a 6-2 lead. After a sacrifice by Benes, Vina and Renteria plated runs with groundouts.
Staked to an 8-2 lead, Benes got even tougher, retiring the side in order in the sixth, seventh and eighth.
"Baseball's humbling," Benes said. "You never know what's going to happen when you go out there. ... This is a place where I've pitched a lot and they have a great mound. I'm thankful that I could pitch well. I think the more negatives you hear about your ability, people question your ability, I think you can use that all as good, positive energy and put that into your performance. So I was ready to pitch and I'm thankful, like I said earlier, I'm very thankful for the opportunity. It was fun to go out and compete."
"I'm not surprised, he's a veteran," Clark said of Benes. "I've been facing him for a long time so I knew he'd step up for us. After he pitched out of a couple of jams, he threw big zeroes in the middle of the game. I thought that was the key. He really gave us a big lift."
Vina and Edmonds, both left-handed batters, were 3-for-10 with three RBI after going just 4-for-18 in the first two games.
Notes: The Cardinals were 78-44 against right-handed starters this year and 17-23 against lefties. They also hit 21 points higher against left-handers. ... Keith Hernandez, who won the 1982 World Series with St. Louis and in 1986 with the Mets, threw out the first pitch. ... Piazza made a leaping grab to snare a foul popup by J.D. Drew, taking a souvenir from Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. The play drew applause from New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was sitting one row behind DeWitt. ... Alfonzo has hit in nine straight postseason games, longest in Mets history. ... Cardinals C Carlos Hernandez painted his finger nails white to help Benes read his signs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.