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Cards pivot toward home with big 'W'

Cards pivot toward home with big 'W'

NEW YORK -- Again, the margin was torturously slim. With everything riding on the outcome, the Cardinals and the Mets writhed through 238 minutes of a pivotal National League Championship Series Game 2.

It was pivotal because the Cardinals could ill afford a second loss in a game started by their ace pitcher. It was pivotal because the Mets were attempting to capture a 2-0 hill on the other side of Chris Carpenter.

Tense and heated. Every swing of the pendulum knocked more air out of 56,349 at Shea Stadium. The stakes ratcheted each ensuing inning and pitch, as late night inched toward early morning.

So razor-thin. A backward flick of Shawn Green's glove. A pitch three inches off the plate. A lefty closer in uniform No. 13 taking the mound minutes shy of Friday the 13th turning into Saturday the 14th.

So Taguchi.

Four hours after Jon Stewart had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch, there was our Zen moment of the day: Taguchi ripping a full-count fastball from Billy Wagner over the fence.

And when it was over, when it was finally OK to breathe again -- three minutes on the other side of midnight -- everything had changed. This NLCS, rather than a New York conquest, had become a contest.

As opposed to that other Championship Series in Detroit, playing out like General Motors against Yugo.

The NLCS landscape shifted with a three-run quake in the ninth triggered by a home run from a 160-pound outfielder who maintained his 4.000 postseason slugging average.

"Who expected that I would hit a home run?" mused Taguchi.

Tony La Russa, that's who. The Cardinals manager topped off a night of great calls -- Spiezio for Rolen in a Scott switch, not giving Carpenter enough rope with which to hang himself, perfect match-up relief -- by having Taguchi replace left-handed-hitting outfielder Chris Duncan defensively in the bottom of the eighth.

"I saw that Billy was warming up, so I might as well get him to play defense as well," said La Russa, alluding to the fact he would have anyway pinch-hit Taguchi, whom he described as someone who isn't "intimidated at all by pressure situations. He plays well late."

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La Russa meant late, as in the ninth inning. Not late, as in 11:48 p.m.

Either way, it worked. La Russa hasn't managed 12 postseason teams and 96 postseason games by accident. He seems to know what he is doing.

But none of that vast October experience had given La Russa what Friday night's game did. Chills.

"It's maybe the best comeback by a club that I've been around," he said.

"Going back 0-2, even though we're going home, it would've been a tough situation," he added.

The circumstances raised the stakes, intensified the thrill.

Carpenter was ordinary. He dug an immediate 0-3 ditch in the first. When the Cardinals brought him back to 4-4 flat ground, he tripped right back into a 4-5 hole.

"Obviously, it wasn't what I was looking for," Carpenter said of his effort. "But it worked out. We won, so I'm not concerned about how I worked. I'm happy for our club, the way we battled and won."

Like opportunistic champions, the Cardinals exploited every opening. They didn't get many, but at every ebb, they produced a high. They forced the Mets to play and pitch flawlessly, and pounced on every flaw.

St. Louis scored its first six runs essentially on four hits, meaning the Cards did not waste any.

Two runs, on Yadier Molina's second-inning double, followed two walks wrapped around an error.

Two more runs, on Jim Edmonds' third-inning homer, resulted from a walk to Albert Pujols.

Two more came when Spiezio's seminal seventh-inning triple cashed in a two-out single by Pujols followed by Guillermo Mota's four-pitch walk of Edmonds.

By then, the Cardinals bullpen had thrown up a wall around the Mets. Yes, the same relief cast which had been helpless to stop the end-of-season tailspin that threatened to turn into a historic collapse. But the same relievers who now have thrown 19 2/3 postseason innings and given up one run.

"You need a clutch bullpen when you get into the postseason," Spiezio said, "and our bullpen has been unbelievable."

Much of this game was unbelievable. Foremost, its outcome, which seemed inconceivable to anyone watching Carlos Delgado take his first of two tours around the bases, behind the two teammates his first-inning homer had delivered.

The early lead faded, but the Mets' momentum never appeared to waver.

"The Cardinals battled back, and they got some tough 0-2 [count] hits," said Mets manager Willie Randolph. "They must've fouled off 60, 70 pitches.

"That's how you get back in the game, scratching and clawing."

And refusing to stay down.

"It's a very, very tough win," La Russa said. "A very important win to give us a chance in the series. To come back like we did several times, this is a great win. ... I've put the lineup card in my suit jacket, so it will not be away from me so I can replay the game and enjoy it."

The grease-penciled sign in the Cardinals locker room read:

"Bus 1:20 a.m.

"Good Morning!"

For the homeward-bound Cardinals, good didn't begin to describe it.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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