By Mike Steffanos
Mets 12 - Cardinals 5
NLCS Tied 2-2
You had the feeling that everyone was expecting Oliver Perez to blow up, the Mets bats to freeze up, and the Cardinals to jump out to a commanding 3-1 lead in the NCLS. Then the Mets decided to go off script. Perez pitched with a level of maturity and competence that no Mets starter not named Tom Glavine has shown in this entire off-season. The Mets squandered a pair of 2-out scoring opportunities in the first 2 innings, and then Yadier Molina singled home a run that David Wright just missed making a play on. It looked like everything was going the Cardinals way again, and the stadium was rocking.
At that moment things looked a little dark, to say the least. But the Mets responded with a pair of solo home runs off of Anthony Reyes in the third to take a 2-1 lead. When Juan Encarnacion tripled home Scott Spiezio to tie the game, the Mets responded again. La Russa elected to go to his bullpen in the fifth, and Carlos Delgado made that decision look bad with a 3-run shot. Tim McCarver and Joe Buck made a lot out of it when the Cardinals came back with a run in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead to 5-3, but the Mets hung a 6-spot on the Redbirds in the very next frame to turn it into a laugher.
Although Reyes and Lo Duca were a combined 2-12 on the night, the middle of the order was huge. Besides the 3-run homer that put the Mets on top in the fifth, Delgado also chipped in with an important 2-run double in the sixth that put the Mets up 7-3 and gave them some breathing room. Carlos Beltran, who had been MIA for a couple of games, came back in a big way with a perfect 3-3 night featuring 2 solo home runs along with 2 walks and 4 runs scored. David Wright had a homer and a walk, Shawn Green had a pair of hits, and Jose Valentin had 2 hits including a bases-clearing double that turned the game into a laugher.
I know he gave up 3 solo home runs and had a line that looks quite unimpressive at first glance. The key to me was that he never let the game get away from him when it was close, and the solo homers came in the fifth and sixth when he had a lead and was doing the right thing in trying to throw strikes. For a guy who hadn't pitched in two weeks, Perez was actually fairly sharp. His slider had bite and consistency. When he would lose his delivery and look bad on one pitch, he would come back and throw a strike. He was never dominating, but he always seemed in control.
While the physical consistency of his delivery was not always perfect, his composure was almost shockingly good. We had all seen and heard of Perez' mental melt-downs with the Pirates, and I assumed he was a head case. For all of his ups and downs since coming to the Mets, Perez has shown a maturity level and a veteran equanimity that could serve him well in turning things around and halting his 2-year career slide. In a way, I think his 2004 breakout season was something of an albatross for this kid -- I think he struggled greatly to live up to the hype created by his career year. I think he's at a stage where he's ready to get past that, grow up and do something with his inarguable talent. The Mets would be crazy to deal this kid in the off-season; I still think he has top-of-the-rotation potential.
I can't predict what will happen tomorrow. If the Cards win, they'll be right back in the driver's seat, despite the last 2 games being in New York. Hell, even if the Mets win they'll have to take one of 2 in New York with Maine in game 6 and probably Oliver in game 7, and that's no sure thing. Whatever happens the rest of the way, I think we'll all look back with some pride and satisfaction at the way they bounced back today.