First-Inning Troubles Dogged Cards

Tuesday, October 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals, front-runners all season, are out of the postseason because they had to play catchup.

The New York Mets' three-run first in Monday night's pennant-clinching 7-0 victory was the final early salvo dumped on the NL Central champions. In the opening inning, the Mets scored 12 runs on 14 hits with six walks in the five games.

``It's important to get ahead, and they did it,'' pitching coach Dave Duncan said. ``We didn't pitch well. It happens sometimes. It's too bad.''

During the regular season, the first inning was the best for the Cardinals, who outscored their opponents 147-90. The trend continued in the division series, when they opened with a six-run first in Game 1 against Greg Maddux.

But after outscoring the Braves 10-3 in the first during a three-game sweep, they managed only four runs in five games in the NLCS. Thus, the springboard became a nightmare.

The Cardinals scored two runs in the first against Rick Reed in Game 3, an eventual 8-2 victory that cut the Mets' series lead to 2-1.

In Games 4 and 5, St. Louis allowed seven runs in the first.

Pat Hentgen, unused in the first round and working on 15 days' rest in Game 5, had a beginning similar to 20-game winner Darryl Kile on three days' rest in Game 4. Five of the first six Mets doubled in a four-run first in Game 4 against Kile, and six of the first seven Mets reached in the first inning of Game 5 as New York took a 3-0 lead.

Hentgen blamed location, not the layoff.

``Unless you throw 100 mph, it's always location,'' Hentgen said. ``I walked a lot of guys and had the count in hitters' favors. When you spot a guy like Mike Hampton three runs, it's tough.''

The Cardinals, who made 10 errors in eight postseason games, didn't help themselves with more uncharacteristic fielding lapses.

Catcher Carlos Hernandez, trying to catch Mets leadoff hitter Timo Perez stealing, bounced his throw into center field. First baseman Will Clark dropped a double-play relay on a play that had a rocky beginning when second baseman Fernando Vina mishandled the ball after fielding Todd Zeile's grounder.

``We've been a good defensive team all year,'' Vina said. ``That's the way the game is. Some days you make some tough errors, some days you play real well.''

In the fourth, shortstop Edgar Renteria could have been charged for an error when his throw to first was in the dirt on Perez's grounder that caromed off the pitching rubber. But the play was ruled an infield hit.

Two errors, one throwing and one fielding, by third baseman Fernando Tatis led to two insurance runs in the sixth inning of Game 4, a 10-6 victory.

``I think they've proved during the course of the season and the postseason we're a very good defensive club,'' manager Tony La Russa said. ``I'll take our two guys up the middle with anybody.''

The score was 6-0 after the Mets chased Hentgen in the fourth, and the hole seemed deeper given the Cardinals' season-long weakness against left-handed pitching. La Russa usually fields a lineup with five left-handed hitters and they were 17-23 against lefties with a .255 average, 21 points lower than their average against right-handers.

Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals' MVP candidate, was particularly quiet against Hampton with strikeouts each of his first three at-bats. Vina and Clark were held to a single apiece and Ray Lankford, a .135 hitter during lefties in the regular season, was 0-for-3 with an infield popup, strikeout and groundout.

``In a short series, it comes down to pitching,'' said Mark McGwire, who grounded out in the ninth as a pinch hitter for Edmonds. ``They shut us down.''