ST. LOUIS – The face looked familiar, and Jeff Suppan blinked to ensure he wasn't seeing a mirage. Before he departed for LaGuardia Airport on Friday night, Suppan and a few St. Louis Cardinals teammates joked that he would probably share a flight to St. Louis with New York Mets starter Steve Trachsel, his opponent in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
And, fate of fates, there Trachsel was, a couple spots in line behind Suppan as they boarded around 8 p.m. to arrive a night early and enjoy a full slumber. They had never formally met, so Suppan introduced himself and his wife, Dana, and after an exchange of pleasantries, they sat down. Suppan buried his face in a book about the Opus Dei, Trachsel, in the seat behind him, was engaged with his own tome of the moment. Their last words were those of two men with respect for one another, two men with similar careers and, ultimately, divergent Saturday nights.
"Good luck," they said.
By the time the plane landed, the series had swung, St. Louis stealing the second game. And by the time Trachsel and Suppan exited their starts Saturday – the former after one miserable inning, the latter following eight brilliant ones – the shift was seismic, and the Cardinals found themselves two wins from facing the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Powered by Suppan's second career home run and his stifling of the Mets' potent lineup, the Cardinals booked a 5-0 victory to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series at the new Busch Stadium, which set an attendance record with 47,053 fans.
The 31-year-old Suppan, whose fastball might not merit a ticket on a Wyoming highway, mixed his 90-mph heat with a sinker that bore away, a cutter that snuck inside, a changeup that dipped like it was magnetized to the plate and an array of other knick-knack pitches that Suppan utilizes, if that is the right word to describe his craftiness. Over Suppan's 99 pitches, the Mets managed three hits – a first-inning single from Carlos Beltran, a Jose Reyes triple that went for naught and a Jose Valentin single that turned into an out when he got greedy – walked once and struck out four times.
"Normally he makes a lot of mistakes," said Beltran, Suppan's teammate for five seasons with the Kansas City Royals. "Today, he was missing down, and he pitched well."
Not that this comes as a surprise to anyone who has seen Suppan pitch since the All-Star break. After July 13, Suppan went 6-2 with a 2.39 earned-run average, better than all but two starters in the major leagues. Better than Johan Santana, the runaway American League Cy Young Award favorite, better than Houston starter Roy Oswalt and even better than teammate Chris Carpenter, who could win the NL Cy Young.
For his ability to quiet the Mets' bats, it was the thunder of his own that prompted the loudest roar of the night. See, Suppan is not exactly Albert Pujols with the bat. He is closer to Mario Mendoza, and were Mendoza to learn that he was being compared to Suppan, he might complain.
During the 2004 season, his first with the Cardinals, Suppan started the year 0 for 43. Finally, Aug. 27, he smacked a pair of singles off Ryan Vogelsong to salvage a modicum of pride.
Last year was better, and it even included Suppan's first and only home run before Saturday.
Off of whom?
So it looked curious, knowing about the plane ride, when Suppan appeared to wink at Trachsel before sending the ball 372 feet over the left-field fence.
"That," Suppan explained, "is just me twitching out there."
Whatever the case, Suppan didn't think the ball had the legs to inch over the fence for the Cardinals' first postseason home run by a pitcher since Bob Gibson's in the 1968 World Series. He figured it would die at the warning track, so immediately after he dropped his bat, Suppan tucked his head and ran, like a Little League coach surely once asked him to. Mets left fielder Endy Chavez, also once a teammate of Suppan's, seemed to have a bead on the ball until he jumped and saw it bang off the top of the fence.
The home run, which led off the second inning, gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. Trachsel left that inning with the bases loaded, facing 12 hitters, giving up five hits and five walks and watching Darren Oliver allow one inherited runner in on a wild pitch and another on a groundout.
As he marched off the mound, sore after taking a shot from Wilson off his right leg, Trachsel grimaced, and it wasn't so much the look of a man in pain as a man pained by himself.
"Disappointed," Trachsel said. "It's not the way I wanted to have this game turn out."
The Game 2 loss had almost cooked the Mets' bullpen, and New York needed more from Trachsel than 43 pitches, 22 of which were balls. If New York can recover from the back-to-back losses, Oliver's six shutout innings out of the bullpen – enough to give most of the relievers a well-deserved day of rest – could be remembered as integral, even if they did come in a lopsided game.
And that's what it was. The Mets, flailing at Suppan's offerings, looked a lot more like the Cardinals team that earned a playoff berth because of its awful division, and the Cardinals, unleashing offensive fury in the first two innings, looked like the Mets team that all year proved itself the best in the NL.
Knowing that, Suppan kept low – low-key, low-maintenance, low-profile. He loathes attention and looked like he'd rather have a root canal than answer questions about his performance, which he did for 7 minutes in a fashion so blase he could get "Ask Jeff Suppan" greenlighted for PBS in about a minute.
Trachsel sounded equally morose and with infinite more reason. The Mets are in trouble, and though Trachsel said, "We're not going to panic," Oliver Perez – he of the 3-13 record and 6.55 earned-run average – starts Game 4 on Sunday against Cardinals rookie Anthony Reyes at 8:05 p.m. ET.
"This team is capable of anything," Mets outfielder Shawn Green said, "able to come back at any time and throw together a hot streak."
Likewise, it's prone to magnificent failures. Two more of those and 24 other Mets will join Trachsel on the return flight to LaGuardia – the last one they'll take as a team this season.