NLCS: Mets vs. Cardinals: Let’s Play Seven!

There are still plenty of unresolved storylines after six games of the NLCS, but one thing is certain. The two best pitchers in the series—Chris Carpenter and Billy Wagner—will not be contending for the series MVP award.

With a 4-2 victory on Wednesday night, the Mets forced a Game 7. Jose Reyes hit a home run to lead off the first inning, John Maine threw 5.1 scoreless innings, and New York never looked back.

The game couldn’t have been more different than Game 2, the last NLCS contest in which Maine and Carpenter faced off. In that game, the two starters combined to give up eight earned runs in nine innings; in Game 6 Carpenter’s two runs were the extent of the damage. Maine again displayed shaky control, walking four men and throwing only 54 of 98 pitches for strikes, but this time around he managed more punchouts than free passes.

Also in contrast to Game 2, the Cardinals ace didn’t walk a man. He was far from perfect, though: he allowed seven hits in his six innings, and the Mets bunched three of those hits together to increase their lead in the 4th inning on a Shawn Green RBI single. Carpenter was supposed to be the Cardinals top weapon in the series, and he’ll probably finish with an 0-1 record and a 5.73 ERA.

The rest of the damage for each team came off of the bullpens, which were so good in Game 5. After retiring the first two batters he faced in the seventh, Braden Looper allowed singles and stolen bases to Michael Tucker and Jose Reyes, then coughed up a 2-run single to Paul Lo Duca. Tyler Johnson came in and put out the fire, but allowing the Mets to increase their lead from 2-0 to 4-0 effectively ended the game before the eighth inning.

After Aaron Heilman made quick work of the Cardinals eighth, Wagner evoked memories of Game 2 and kept things interesting. Juan Encarnacion led off with a single and Scott Rolen followed with a double. The Mets closer quickly set down Ronnie Belliard and Yadier Molina, but his NLCS nemesis—So Taguchi, who hit the tiebreaking HR in Game 2—doubled in both runners.

WPA doesn’t give Taguchi much credit for his clutch two-bagger: before his at-bat, the Cardinals had a 1.3% chance of pulling out the victory; with the deficit cut to two, it was only 3.7%. After all, with two outs and only the tying run at the plate, it would take a continuing string of heroics to actually win the game.

Wagner prevented further embarassment by retiring David Eckstein to end the game. For all the outstanding performances turned in by the Mets bullpen this October, Wagner goes into Game 7 with a postseason ERA of 10.38. Comparisons to Mariano Rivera are, alas, not forthcoming.

In a game with no lead changes and little drama, WPA paints a stark picture. Only three Cardinals had positive contributions, among them Taguchi (with his one 9th-inning at-bat) and Johnson. Carpenter’s pitching gave the Cards 1.7%, but his two plate appearances were worth a negative 3.9%. The team leader was Albert Pujols, whose 10% contribution was mostly derived from his first-inning single which put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out.

On the other hand, only three Mets–Endy Chavez, Carlos Delgado, and Jose Valentin–failed to post positive WPA totals. Maine led the pack with 22.7% (27% from pitching against -4.3% at the plate) with Reyes and Green tied for 2nd at 10.9%.

Maine’s performance was even more valuable to the Mets series hopes than his impact on Game 6. Like Darren Oliver’s yeoman’s work in Game 3, Maine’s solid outing allowed Willie Randolph to hold a few arms back for Game 7 and not overuse those who pitched in Game 6. Given that Oliver Perez is likely to start Thursday’s game, the importance of a fresh bullpen cannot be overstated.

As tempting as it is to close with an elaborate Spanish-American War joke (don’t tell me you weren’t thinking it yourself), I’ll leave you with something else. Going into this series, the Cardinals were heavy underdogs, relying on a few specious trends to hold up in order to compete with the goliaths of the NL East. After six games, New York has outscored St. Louis by a lone run (26-25), and both clubs are left relying on big question marks to get them into the fifth inning—maybe—in Game 7.

After six games, a World Series berth comes down to nine innings of impossible-to-predict baseball.

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