Work in Sports
FLUSHING, New York (Ticker) -- Next stop, the World Series.
The New York Mets, a team built for the postseason, held up their half of a potential Subway Series matchup by closing out the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-0, in Game Five of the National League Championship Series and advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1986.
Mike Hampton, the poster boy for the Mets' win-now mentality, was masterful in his biggest moment for New York. The lefthander, who normally struggles in cold weather, braved temperatures in the mid-50s and allowed just three singles and a walk with eight strikeouts.
Named the LCS Most Valuable Player for pitching 16 scoreless innings in the series, Hampton put the finishing touches on the pennant by retiring Rick Wilkins on a fly ball to center field, touching off a raucous celebration at the mound.
The ninth inning took on a twist after St. Louis reliever Dave Veres beaned Mets rookie Jay Payton in the head in the bottom of the eighth. The incident cleared both benches, although no punches were thrown.
The wild card-winning Mets await the winner of the American League Championship Series between the crosstown New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners. The two-time defending world champion Yankees lead Seattle 3-2 and host Games Six and Seven, if necessary.
A World Series matchup between New York teams would be the first since 1956. The Mets are headed for their fourth World Series, having won in 1969 and 1986. In 1973, they lost in seven games to the Oakland Athletics.
After the Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS last year, they felt they were an ace away from turning the corner. They traded promising righthander Octavio Dotel and speedy outfielder Roger Cedeno to Houston to acquire Hampton, a 22-game winner in 1999.
Hampton (2-1) struggled under the New York microscope but was much better than his 15-10 record indicated. He dropped Game One of the Division Series against San Francisco but rebounded to completely shut down St. Louis in Game One. Following his gem tonight, Hampton has tossed 18 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason.
The Mets staked Hampton to all the offense he needed in the opening inning, taking advantage of a rusty Pat Hentgen (0-1). Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura had RBI singles before a groundout by Todd Zeile plated another run. Zeile broke open the game with a three-run double in the fourth and the final five innings were a mere formality as Hampton toyed with the Cardinals.
St. Louis was seeking its first World Series appearance since 1987.
The Mets got to Hentgen quickly. Rookie Timoniel Perez singled in the bottom of the first, stole second and took third when Carlos Hernandez's throw bounced into center field. Alfonzo followed with a single, driving in his 16th postseason run -- a Mets' record.
Mike Piazza walked on four pitches and Ventura made Hentgen pay with a single to right that scored Alfonzo and left runners at the corners. Zeile hit an apparent double-play grounder, but second baseman Fernando Vina booted the ball before getting a forceout. Shortstop Edgar Renteria tried to complete the double play, but first baseman Will Clark dropped the throw as Zeile reached.
Benny Agbayani walked and Jay Payton blooped a single to right to load the bases. But Hentgen avoided further trouble by getting Mike Bordick to pop out and striking out Hampton.
The Mets threatened in the third, putting two aboard with one out. But Hentgen got Payton on a line drive to left field and Bordick -- who had just one hit in the series -- on a fly to right.
Another bad defensive play got Hentgen in trouble in the fourth. With one out, Perez ripped a grounder up the middle that hit the pitching rubber and caromed to shortstop. Renteria made a throw in the dirt and Clark could not handle it on a play that was generously ruled a single.
After a popout by Alfonzo, Piazza lined a double into the left-field corner and Ventura was walked. Zeile, a former Cardinal, crushed a three-run double off the wall in right-center field and Shea Stadium erupted. Hentgen was replaced by Mike Timlin, who walked Agbayani. Only a great defensive play by Renteria allowed St. Louis to escape more damage.
Hentgen allowed six runs and seven hits over 3 2/3 innings. Making his first start in 16 days, the veteran righthander walked five and struck out two.
Rookie Britt Reames surrendered a leadoff single in the fifth then drew the ire of the crowd by knocking down Hampton. After the Mets' starter failed to get down a bunt, Perez grounded into a forceout. Alfonzo singled up the middle before Piazza grounded back to the mound.
While Hampton was throttling the Cardinals, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa essentially looked to the future of his team and brought in erratic 21-year-old lefthander Rick Ankiel to start the seventh. After Bordick walked, Hampton sacrificed. But with a runner in scoring pitching, Ankiel struck out Perez.
Ankiel got ahead of Alfonzo before reverting to the form that saw him throw seven wild pitches in his first two postseason starts. Consecutive pitches to the backstop plated Bordick and Alfonzo walked. With the crowd of 55,695 getting on his promising pitcher, La Russa mercifully pulled Ankiel for Mike James.
La Russa admitted before the game that he was hoping to get Ankiel a positive appearance before the series was over. The manager went so far as to say it was one of his three wishes for the remainder of the NLCS. But like so many of the decisions made by the Cards skipper in the series, this one backfired badly.