ST. LOUIS – Slowly and painfully, the National League Championship Series is turning into one of those before-and-after ads meant to scare people away from methamphetamines. In the beginning, it looked good enough. But if there weren't a baseball equivalent to rotting teeth and craggy faces before, the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals are defining it now.
So, hey, if we've got the Battle of the Ugly on our hands, that duckling needs love, too. Up to three games remain after the Mets evened the best-of-seven NLCS Sunday night with a 12-5 victory that included five RBI from Carlos Delgado, a pair of home runs from Carlos Beltran and Mets starter Oliver Perez's 5 2/3-inning, nine-hit, five-run performance that Fox Sports' Joe Buck deemed "terrific."
Hyperbole, it seems, is all that can save this series from the annals of the most forgettable. It has teetered from Game 1's pitchers' duel to Game 2's slugfest, tottered back to Game 3's blowout and, presumably – mercifully – bottomed out Sunday with 3 hours, 31 minutes of the Mets asserting themselves as they did most of the regular season. Rain, expected all day Monday, would afford the Cardinals a breather, allow starters Tom Glavine and Jeff Weaver to go on full rest for Game 5 and, hopefully, wash away any remainder of Game 4's odor.
Because the starting pitchers underwhelmed, and the Cardinals' relievers coughed up 10 runs, and a combined seven home runs tied an LCS record, and … and … duckling love, remember?
Fine. The best thing this series has going for it is unpredictability.
On one hand, there are the Mets and their lineup. Delgado, who homered and drove in five runs, has been on a rampage. Beltran, hitting in front of him, smacked two more home runs, and third baseman David Wright, hitting behind Delgado, crushed one.
On the other, there are the Mets and their rotation, which, aside from Glavine, has all the stability of a free radical.
"We have all the confidence in our pitching staff," Wright said, "but" – whoever didn't see that but coming hasn't watched the Mets this season – "our bread and butter is our offense. We're going to need to go out there and score some runs. It makes it more comfortable for everybody.
"We've got a good offense. We've got a good lineup. And it's only a matter of time before we bust out."
The first three games of the series seemed to have killed most perceptions about the Mets, decided favorites after steamrollering the NL. First they needed a Beltran home run to win a game. Then their bullpen ignited like a magician's flash paper. After that, they couldn't touch Jeff Suppan, who builds his game around allowing hitters to connect bat and ball.
Finally, the real Mets showed up in Game 4, swinging like axemen, pitching to a mediocre tee and stomping out with a victory.
"To me," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said, "it's about whether we can hold them until the fifth or the sixth."
By the sixth, the game was well out of hand. The Mets dropped a six spot that inning after posting three runs in the fifth. Reliever Josh Hancock must be angling for a car dealership to sponsor him or something, because he gave up five runs in zero innings for an earned-run average of infinity. Brad Thompson gave up three runs, Tyler Johnson one and Braden Looper one, and a Cardinals bullpen that had given up one run in 20 2/3 innings this postseason saw its ERA rise from 0.44 to 3.51.
"What we've done for those innings is something we're going to show and keep showing," Johnson said. "Tonight happens. A couple bad things happen. It doesn't make any difference."
Maybe not to Johnson. The reality is that if the Cardinals had won, they could have finished the series at home and kicked back with some caipirinhas like the Tigers will do the rest of the week. Now, they face the prospect of returning to Shea Stadium – where the Mets were 50-31 this season – with New York needing one victory.
Should the Cardinals take Game 5, on the other hand, they're still in fighting shape. Ace Chris Carpenter goes in Game 6, and Suppan starts Game 7, against, respectively, rookie John Maine and Darren Oliver or Steve Trachsel or Perez, each of whom goes tick-tock during any given start.
"If by some chance," the Cardinals' Johnson said, "we don't win [Game 5] – and I know we're going to – we're going to get those two wins in New York."
Boldness plays in this series because it can. Doubters have been proven fools, convention spat at. So Taguchi hit a home run. Then Suppan did. On Sunday, David Eckstein knocked one out. And Albert Pujols remains homerless.
So wacky it has been, there remained a few hundred proud Cardinals fans who, in the ninth inning, started a chant for pinch hitter Gary Bennett. They knew ugly when they saw it, and a backup catcher pinch hitting generally is the sign that a game has spiraled.
He struck out, of course, and John Rodriguez hit into the Cardinals' third 4-6-3 double play of the evening, and the game was euthanized. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hustled into the interview room, sour puss in tow, and perked up only when asked about what the rest of the series held, if the final three games could be a Picasso to the first four's drunken fingerpainting.
"It will be fascinating to watch," La Russa said.
Yeah. Something like that.