Work in Sports
Payton's double-play ball in fourth keys Cardinals' win
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
NEW YORK -- Jay Payton was a hero twice in St. Louis. Back home in New York, things aren't going as well.
The New York Mets' center fielder, a solid candidate for rookie of the year, blew his team's one big chance to get back into Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday, and now the St. Louis Cardinals are alive and breathing a little easier.
So badly did he blow it, in fact, that Payton's one at-bat had a chilling effect on the Mets both offensively and defensively.
"If I could get a hit there with the bases loaded," Payton said after the Cardinals trampled the Mets 8-2, cutting New York's lead in this best-of-seven series to 2-1, "it might have turned things around a little."
The Mets had given up a lead in this series for the first time in the first inning and had just sidestepped more trouble in the top of the fourth inning. St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire, pinch hitting for Ray Lankford, flied deep to left field with the bases loaded and two outs, keeping the score at 5-1 and keeping the Mets one swing away from tying the score.
New York had not lost to St. Louis at Shea Stadium this season, and as the Mets slid into the bottom of the fourth, they looked like they might just keep it that way. Third baseman Robin Ventura drew a leadoff walk, first baseman Todd Zeile singled through the hole on the right side of the infield and left fielder Benny Agbayani followed with a single up the middle, loading the bases with no one out.
That brought up Payton to face St. Louis starter Andy Benes.
Payton came into the game hitting only .250 in this series. But despite the low average he had five RBIs in the two games, including a late home run in Game 1 to help salt away that victory and the game-winning RBI in the top of the ninth in Game 2.
Earlier in Game 3, Benes had walked Payton, throwing four consecutive fastballs off the inside corner. But this time, Benes came with a slider on the first pitch and Payton, opening up his swing expecting the inside heat, lunged at the outside pitch.
He hit a weak grounder to St. Louis second baseman Fernando Vina, who chased Agbayani back toward first base, then at the last second threw to Will Clark to get Payton at first base. Clark then tagged out Agbayani barely starting his way back toward second to complete the double play.
A run scored, but the biggest threat of the inning had passed.
"That was big, being able to keep that inning down," Vina said. "That's something I think, at that point, it was an instinctive thing. If he didn't get past me, and I could tag him ... that's what I want to do."
Benes saw the play as the turning point of the game. He said the pitch to Payton wasn't necessarily a good slider. But it was something Payton had not seen. And that's what was important.
"All you're trying to do is not be in a pattern," Benes explained. "If you do anything in a pattern, believe me, these guys are going to take advantage of it."
The double play enabled the Cardinals to pull off another slick trick. With light-hitting Mets shortstop Mike Bordick up next, hitting out of the No. 8 spot, the Cards decided to pitch to him, but only barely. Benes walked him on four consecutive pitches, bringing up the pitcher's spot in the lineup.
That put Mets manager Bobby Valentine in this predicament: With runners at first and third with two outs, trailing by three runs, should he pinch-hit for reliever Glendon Rusch?
Rusch, on in relief of starter Rick Reed, had a 1.29 ERA against the Cardinals this season. In fact, St. Louis was hitting only .188 against him.
Still, Valentine went for the chance to get some runs on a two-out hit from pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton instead of keeping Rusch in the game. But Hamilton popped out to short center field on a 2-0 pitch and the threat was quashed.
The Cardinals put up three more runs in the top of the fifth against Mets reliever Rick White. New York did not score again.
"I think that really took a lot of air out of their balloon," Cards reliever Alan Benes, Andy's brother, said of the double play.
And now everyone in St. Louis can breathe a little easier.