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two strikes and you're . . . .

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when pujols stepped to the plate in the 7th last night, wearing the collar for the series, st louis had made 47 outs and gotten just 7 hits. they would get another 7 hits the rest of the night, while making just 7 outs.

it all began with albert's single, his first safety of the series -- and an uncharacteristically hard-won one. he battled his ass off for that poor little hit -- took him 11 pitches, a measure of how out of synch the guy was. his hits typically are emphatic statements; this one was a garbled question. he went ahead 3-0 in the count, took a strike, then swung at ball four and fouled it off; a succession of fouls ensued, with albert just staying alive up there. he fouled off five 3-2 pitches in a row, several times getting around early on mota's mid-90s fastball and yanking it foul down the left-field line. dude was literally jumping out of his skin. on the 11th pitch, he finally kept his hands back long enough to put the ball in play -- barely -- a few inches inside the line. edmonds' walk and spiezio's clutch game-tying triple ensued, and the cardinals were back in business.

as i said in my postgame update to the chat thread, i don't want to oversell this idea; i don't want to give albert the credit for spiezio's two big late-inning hits, or taguchi's. but when the big man struggles as he did, it can't go unnoticed on the bench and in the clubhouse. he was taking awful at-bats -- sloppy, undisciplined -- swinging at everything, trying to do too much up there, putting pressure on himself. when the cannon is misfiring, it's gotta make the footsoldiers uneasy. so from a psychological standpoint, his hard-earned single may have brought a collective sigh of relief to the cardinal bench: whew, we still have albert; we're not going to have to try to win this without him. and as a purely practical matter, his single extended the inning and got the tying run up there; it started the game-tying rally.

that at-bat was also emblematic of the cards' great show of heart at the plate last night. as i mentioned, the hit came with 2 strikes, after a succession of two-strike fouls. the cardinals as a team fouled off 26 two-strike pitches last night. if that's not a record, it is in any case a buttload of stay-up-there swings -- and a measure of the cardinals' guts. no more comments, please, about them laying down or choking; the mets had the blade of the bayonet against their throats all night, and the cardinals kept pushing it away. leading off the 2d inning, on the heels of the mets' dispiriting 3-run dump in the bottom of the 1st, edmonds fouled off a 3-2 pitch before coaxing a walk. next inning, pujols fouled off two 2-strike pitches before walking; he scored on edmonds' subsequent homer. spiezio fouled off an 0-2 pitch before his game-tying triple in the 7th; and taguchi, you no doubt recall, fouled off an 0-2 pitch, and then two 3-2 pitches, before lasering his game-winning homer off wagner in the 9th.

batting with two strikes last night, the cardinals went 8 for 23 with two homers, a triple, a double, and four walks -- that's a .348 / .444 / .739 line in two-strike counts. nearly every big hit -- edmonds' homer, spiezio's triple, taguchi's homer, spiezio's 9th-inning double to drive in the 8th run for insurance -- came with two strikes; 6 of their 9 rbis came on two-strike hits. the blade was at their throats; they kept pushing it away.

and now it's a series.

the mets believed they could hit carpenter, and their confidence was not misplaced; they manhandled the guy. once again his curveball betrayed him, as it did in the unsightly 35-pitch 1st inning of the nlds clincher vs san diego. reyes' leadoff double came on a weak 1-2 curveball; then carp missed with a couple of hooks in the walk to beltran, and he missed outside with a curve on the 0-0 pitch to delgado. he did get a curve over for a strike on the next pitch, but he shook molina off on the 1-1 -- and apparently shook off the curve, because the pitch was a fastball. delgado whacked it over the wall in left-center.

chavez's leadoff double in the 2d inning -- another lazy curve, one that rolled rather than snapping. against the padres, carp put the curve in cold storage after the 1st and just beat 'em with fastballs and cutters, but the mets' lineup is too good to be handled that way; when reyes came up in the 2d with a man on third, carp threw him three fastballs, and reyes yanked the 3d one into right-center for a single. if there's any solace to be taken from that outing, it's this: carp really only got hurt by two hitters, delgado and reyes. but let's not kid ourselves -- the whole new york lineup was seeing the ball well, and a number of the outs came on well-hit balls; another two of them came on bunts and don't really count. chris is gonna have to make some adjustments for game 6 or the mets might just do this to him again.

as for la russa -- bless the man, he continues to manage straightforwardly. he put an obviously impaired rolen on the bench and got spiezio in there; jump-started the offense. he resisted the temptation to let carp bat for himself in the top of the 6th with two outs and the cardinals down 5-4; can't you just hear him in the interview room afterward, explaining himself? "chris was only at 92 pitches, and he's our horse; we've ridden him all year. . . " and the real motive would have been something stupid, like that la russa thought it was important for chris to get a "w" and left him in with the hope that the cards might rally and give their ace a victory. . . . but common-sense tony overruled that impulse. he lifted the foundering starter and got the bullpen involved. in both of these cases, tlr recognized that his great players -- carp and rolen -- were not the right men for the moment, and gave less heralded players a chance. he's getting the whole roster involved, just as he does during the regular season.

if there's one decision i disagreed with -- we all disagreed with it, including the fox announcers -- it was his decision not to bring ty johnson into the game to face carlos beltran in the scary bottom of the 8th. beltran has only faced ty johnson once, and had never faced kinney before last night; it wasn't a notecard-driven decision. beltran's a far more dangerous hitter when he bats left (ie, vs right-handed pitching), so i don't know what was in la russa's mind; kinney hadn't looked sharp vs the previous batter (lo duca), walking him on 4 pitches -- 3 fastballs and a high slider. there was a long conference at the mound, in which la russa either told kinney a) "don't throw him a fastball," or b) "get this guy out or you're pitching for the river city rascals next year." kinney threw beltran nothing but curveballs and sliders -- put three of them knee-high in the strike zone and induced the dp. whatever tony's reasoning, he apparently knew what he was doing.

i attended a playoff game not unlike this one back in 1987, game 3 of the nlcs at san francisco; the cards fell behind early 4-0, got back into it on a jim lindeman homer, and rallied in the 7th against a difficult bullpen. it's hard to come back in the postseason; the bullpens are too good, and the pressure to produce hits on demand can force hitters into bad at-bats. but for whatever it's worth, last night was the 5th time in their last 15 nlcs games that the cardinals rallied from a deficit of at least 2 runs to get a win. they did it in games 1, 2, and 7 of the 2004 nlcs vs houston, and in game 5 last year. it takes a relaxed group of batters to pull it off -- good to see the cardinals in that frame of mind so deep in the postseason.

no more talk, please, of this team laying down. the mets are good; they may yet beat the cardinals. but it won't be for lack of guts on our side.