Perhaps the window was closing on the Mets; perhaps it wasn't. But they understood this: They had best win the games started by Tom Glavine if they are to reach the World Series; they had best win the games when the circumstances favor them, because -- truth be told -- there may not be too many of them.
The Mets implemented that thinking in their NLDS appearance after losing planned Game 1 starting pitcher Orlando Hernandez, winning Glavine's start and dispatching the Dodgers in three games. And they followed through against the Cardinals in the first game of the NLCS on Thursday night. With Glavine pitching splendidly through seven scoreless innings, and Carlos Beltran awakening the Mets' slumbering offense with a two-run home run in the sixth inning, they handled the Cardinals in the first game of the best-of-seven series and kept their postseason record unsmudged.
With a tense 2-0 victory, the Mets avoided a deficit that could be perilous for a team strapped for pitching and in the first stage of a five-games-in-five-days sequence. And they fortified their confidence in a special way. As Billy Wagner put it after saving the victory: "It's not just winning. It's doing what you set out to do. We all knew who's pitching for them tomorrow [Chris Carpenter]. So we wanted to take this game, no question. With Glav pitching, it's what we had to do.
"We looked at is as our game to win, and we won it."
The victory was an appropriate response to a wonderful placard brought to Shea Stadium by one of the 56,311 patrons, one with a baseball memory that reached to 1948 and the Boston Braves. "Glavine and Maine and pray for rain," it read. As the NLCS moved toward its second engagement, it already has provided two of the three. And John Maine is to start Game 2 on Friday night.
Glavine performed brilliantly, precisely as the Mets had anticipated when they signed him away from the Braves. He extended his scoreless innings streak of this postseason to 13 and restored the image he created in the early '90s -- "A big big-game pitcher," manager Willie Randolph called it -- and reinforced with strong performances in the 1995 World Series, 1999 NLCS -- against the Mets -- and in the 2001 NLCS.
At the same time, Beltran did the same thing, giving the Cardinals an unsolicited reminder of his stunning performance against them in the 2004 NLCS. That year, he hit four home runs and drove in five runs in 24 at-bats.
"A bad flashback," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it.
Beltran had merely one hit in four at-bats on Thursday, but it was everything the Mets needed.
"Their big guys asserted themselves," La Russa said.
Their Cardinals counterparts didn't. While Jeff Weaver did have his way with the Mets batting order for five innings, he also gave Beltran a fat 2-2 pitch in the sixth following a two-out single by Paul Lo Duca, the Mets' second hit.
And the middle of the Cardinals' batting order didn't live up to its resume against Glavine. Albert Pujols, Juan Encarnacion and Scott Rolen had a composite .376 average in 109 career at-bats against Glavine before Thursday. Their contributions were two walks in 12 plate appearances. Pujols now is hitless with four strikeouts in his last 10 postseason at-bats. But who's counting? He isn't a Yankees third baseman.
Glavine gave the other Cardinals next to nothing, too. When he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, he had surrendered four singles and two walks. And he had thrown merely 89 pitches, a significant development, given the likelihood that he will have to start Game 5, if it's necessary, on Monday on short rest. He was replaced in the eighth by Guillermo Mota, who retired Preston Wilson with a runner on base, Pujols on deck and two outs. Wagner pitched around a two-out walk in the ninth for the save.
Aside from Beltran's home run, the work of Glavine, Mota and Wagner was reinforced by only the Mets' defense. The Mets made five pretty plays, including one by Beltran, who doubled Pujols off first base after catching a line drive with one out in the fourth inning. An inning later, after Jim Edmonds singled with one out, Endy Chavez, the understudy left fielder, made a diving backhand play in left-center to take a hit away from Ronnie Belliard.
Chavez had entered the game after Cliff Floyd aggravated the Achilles tendon strain he suffered Saturday in the NLDS, while batting in the second.
"I don't make that catch," Floyd said of Chavez's grab.
David Wright made two nice plays at third base on line drives -- one turned into a double play -- and in the ninth, after Wagner retired his first batter, Jose Valentin made a splendid stop, jump and throw to first to deny Encarnacion. Some call it the Jeter play. Randolph, his years showing, called it "his Y.A. Tittle play."
"I told the guys in Spring Training that I want them to appreciate defense, recognize it like we do big hits -- high fives and 'Ooos' and 'Aahs,'" Randolph said. "It's contagious. Look how it worked tonight."
But this game was Glavine's. The raves were directed at him, appropriately. After the fact, he could acknowledge what he wouldn't allow himself to think before and during his workday -- that the Mets had to win his game.
"I understand the perception," he said.
He knew he had lifted his team, as he did the Braves teams in all those other Octobers. A sense of achievement filled him. He hadn't felt one so powerful, so encouraging in a while.
"He ought to be real happy and proud," his catcher, Lo Duca, said. "He did a great job. In my short time here, he was real good early and he's real good lately. He made us a better team tonight. And we're pretty good all the time."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.