Lack of offense puts Mets in a hole

Lack of offense puts Mets in a hole

ST. LOUIS -- It took more than six months, most of those golden in a summer of love, but the Mets' first real crisis of 2006 has arrived.

How they respond will determine if their autumn features a Fall Classic or a not-so-classic fall.

"We lost the battle," Carlos Beltran said through steely eyes late Saturday night, "but we haven't lost the war."

This Game 3 skirmish in the National League Championship Series went decisively to St. Louis, 5-0, behind Jeff Suppan, who dealt the Cards a 2-1 series lead with his bat as well as his sturdy right arm and expertise.

By himself, with one swing, Suppan provided more offense at Busch Stadium than the Mets' star-studded array of sluggers. Not content merely to shut down the Mets on three lonely hits across eight innings -- turning it over to Josh Kinney for three outs of relief -- Suppan launched the game's only home run.

His leadoff blast off the top of the left-field fence in the second made a bad night worse for losing pitcher Steve Trachsel, adding insult to injury. Trachsel left without retiring a batter in the second inning, having taken a hard one-hop grounder by Preston Wilson off his right thigh.

"It stiffened up quickly on me -- I wasn't able to drive off my back leg," Trachsel said, departing after issuing a four-pitch walk to Albert Pujols that loaded the bases in a 3-0 game. "I'm disappointed I didn't pitch better. It's not the way I wanted this game to turn out."

Out of the bullpen came veteran Darren Oliver, whose only mistake came with his second delivery. A wild pitch past catcher Paul Lo Duca brought home David Eckstein. Jim Edmonds' run-scoring grounder finished the scoring for the night, Oliver hanging up six zeros to relieve pressure from the overburdened Mets bullpen.

That's one silver lining in an otherwise futile pursuit for manager Willie Randolph's troupe. There wasn't much to recommend Game 3 unless you were among the 47,053 wearing red and cheering for Team Pujols.

The Mets now turn to left-hander Oliver Perez to quiet the Cards and help get them even in Game 4. He'll face rookie right-hander Anthony Reyes.

Randolph dismissed the notion that the Mets are in trouble.

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"We've been in tougher spots than this," the manager said. "We feel like we're in pretty good shape, even though we're down 2-1. Things could change real, real quick, so we'll get some rest and I guarantee you we'll be ready to play [Sunday night]."

Asked how they could have been in a more challenging predicament, Randolph said: "Well, it depends how you look at it. We're down 2-1, and obviously we go out and win the next few games, we'll be back in it. ... We win three, we'll go to the World Series. That's the way I'm looking at it.

"We don't try to overanalyze or be too dramatic about anything that goes on. We've been a good team all year, and that's the way we play. We played loose and easy all year long, we're not going to change that now.

"We know who we are; no one has to tell us about it. We win [Game 4], we tie it up. ... That's the way we look at it, and we feel good."

They'll feel a lot better if they kick that offense back in gear. The Mets have been outscored, 10-0, since Lo Duca doubled home Reyes for a 6-4 lead in the sixth inning of Game 2.

"It's the playoffs," David Wright said, having gone 0-for-3 with a lineout to shortstop deepening the frustration. "We definitely don't want to go down three games to one with Chris Carpenter [set to start Game 6] out there."

Suppan, the 31-year-old right-hander with an impressive big-game history, showed why he, at times, has been the Cards' co-ace with Carpenter.

With Kinney's assistance, Suppan handed the Mets their first postseason shutout since Oct. 15, 1999, when Tom Glavine and two Atlanta relievers combined to blank New York, 1-0, in Game 3 of the NLCS.

"I have faced Suppan a lot of times," said Beltran, who singled and stole a base in the first, but was hitless in his next three at-bats. "Normally he makes some mistakes. But he was pitching down ... he pitched well.

"Sometimes you put a little pressure on the offense and it's difficult. It's going to happen. We've got to try to get hits and put ourselves in scoring position."

Beltran, left at second when Carlos Delgado bounced to the mound, and Jose Reyes, who tripled and was stranded there when Suppan struck out Lo Duca, were the only Mets to reach scoring position.

"I just went out there with the same approach I would take in any game," Suppan said. "That's keep the ball down, change speeds and work fast."

While the Cards made quick work of the Mets' vaunted attack, Trachsel labored from the outset.

Even before he got drilled on the right thigh by Wilson, hastening his departure, Trachsel endured a painful, fitful night.

He faced 12 batters and retired two. The first out in the game was a pickoff of Eckstein after the Cards shortstop had singled through the middle leading off the inning. That saved Trachsel a run after he walked Wilson, served an opposite-field single to Pujols and watched Game 2 star Scott Spiezio hoist a fly ball in front of a diving Shawn Green in right field, which kicked away for a two-run triple.

After walking Scott Rolen and Ronnie Belliard, Trachsel escaped the ordeal by striking out Yadier Molina looking on three pitches.

Suppan was rolling along when he stepped up to face Trachsel leading off the second.

Falling behind, 0-2, on called strikes, Suppan fouled one at the plate before stepping into a fastball down and in and sending it rocketing to left.

Endy Chavez backtracked and reached the fence in a heartbeat as the ball bounced off the railing and bounded into the Mets' bullpen -- which soon would be humming with activity.

"I just missed it," Chavez said. "It was one of those nights. We hit a lot of balls hard, but they made great plays."

It was Suppan's second career homer, the first having come at Trachsel's expense in old Busch Stadium in September 2005.

While Oliver was holding the Cards to three hits and a walk in six innings of sterling relief, the Cards' defense made a series of superb plays.

Wilson shot down Jose Valentin trying to stretch a single into a double in the fifth. Rolen made one of his superlative barehanded, charging plays to erase Lo Duca in the sixth. Chavez was robbed by Eckstein with a runner on in the eighth, getting a force out, and Edmonds roamed to the track in left-center to take down Beltran's drive for the final out.

"We don't want to get our back against the wall down 3-1," Green said. "[Sunday's game] is huge."

Cliff Floyd, whose bat has been a big part of the Mets' success, said he would test his strained left Achilles tendon before the game, "and if it feels good, I'll try to give it a shot.

"I don't want to go out there like I did in Game 1, hurt," Floyd added. "But if I can do anything to help this team, I want to be there for them."

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