NEW YORK -- The scent of the World Series reached Shea Stadium late Friday night, delivered with October's chill by a breeze that already had passed through Motown. The power of Carlos Delgado put the Mets on the threshold of a fifth straight postseason victory and a two-game advantage over the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

It was going to be so good for them, and they knew it. The circumstances were so favorable. Seven more outs, two more victories and a few flights to Detroit, or maybe Oakland. What did that matter? Then the Mets lost all they had worked for -- first the lead, then the game, then the advantage in the best-of-seven series. And in the end, they lost the scent too.

Where they are now, following a 9-6 collapse and the worst kind of defeat, is difficult to say. They passed through metal detectors before boarding their flight to St. Louis. The next three games will be mettle detectors.

"We'll see what we're made of," catcher Paul Lo Duca said.

It isn't a test they're happy to take.

The loss put them in that situation, in an unfamiliar circumstance. The Mets are even; this team that led its division race virtually from the beginning and never trailed in the NLDS, now is on equal footing with its opponent.

Or is it even? The loss -- actually it was the manner of the loss -- did more than square the series at one victory each. The Cardinals beat the Mets' best. They took the Mets' best shots -- two home runs by Delgado and a productive night by Jose Reyes. And then they hammered Billy Wagner.

"You know they're feeling pretty good about themselves," Cliff Floyd said. "They picked up some steam on us."

When Wagner surrendered a leadoff home run to So Taguchi in the ninth inning and two runs after that, another Mets advantage -- superior relief pitching -- vanished as well.

Their bullpen is dented and if not overworked, it is at least worked to a point at which it can't be fresh for Game 3 on Saturday night. And who knows about subsequent games? The bullpen could not come through in the seventh and ninth innings. Moreover, it worked five innings in relief of starter John Maine, throwing 112 pitches to Maine's 88. Now, with no off-day for travel and rest, the 'pen faces three games in three nights in hostile territory, with Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez scheduled to start the first two.

"No one said it was going to be easy," Lo Duca said. "We have our work cut out for us. What we have to do is blow it off and steal one back."

That was the appropriate phrasing to be sure. The Cardinals picked the Mets' pocket.

"We felt it was our game," right fielder Shawn Green said.

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The Mets held leads of 3-0, 4-2 and 6-4, the third one entrusted to the bullpen. They had won 46 straight games in which they led through six innings. And when Guillermo Mota, the Mets' third reliever, retired the first two batters in the seventh, the game seemed to be routine.

But a single down the third-base line by Albert Pujols -- his first hit of the series came on the 11th pitch, after six straight foul balls -- changed the routine. A four-pitch walk to Jim Edmonds followed, prompting a visit from manager Willie Randolph.

After the conference, Scott Spiezio pulled a 0-2 fastball off the top of the wall in right field for three bases and two -- and nearly three -- runs. More than the home run by Taguchi, the triple by Spiezio undermined the Mets.

Green kept the ball from carrying over the fence and nearly caught it.

"I thought I had it," he said. "The only thing wrong was that ball wasn't in my glove."

It wasn't only thing. Spiezio had looked bad on two changeups. He fouled off a fastball, and Lo Duca called for another change.

"I wanted a change, [Mota] wanted a fastball," the catcher said. "I went with the pitcher."

The ball struck the top of the wall in full view of right-field umpire Tim Welke, who, nonetheless, conferred with the rest of the crew. His initial call stood. Either way, Spiezio, playing for injured third baseman Scott Rolen, had his 13th hit in 19 career at-bats with runners in scoring position in postseason play. Spiezio delivered again in the ninth against Wagner, driving in Pujols from second base with a double.

Some of the shortfall in the seventh was obscured by Wagner's fatally flawed ninth. He faced six batters and allowed four hits. Taguchi's home run was just the beginning -- of the end.

"Stuff happens," Wagner said, paraphrasing bumper-sticker philosophy. "It's just like the other 50 I've blown -- I was no better or worse than [Thursday night]. They found holes after the home runs. And Taguchi ... he just got the head [of the bat] out. Bad game for me, good swing for him. I've had bad days before when I didn't get it done."

The triskaidekaphobics will blame the date and the uniform number, 13, Wagner has worn since college. If they're good, they know that Jim Edmonds, who hit a two-run home run off Maine in the third, was the Cardinals' 13th batter. Wagner dismissed it.

"I have 300-odd saves wearing this number," he said. "They beat me, that's all. They came back and beat us."

The Cardinals' resilience offset the power play by Delgado. He gave the Mets a lead for the second time in the fifth inning, when he hit his third home run of the postseason, over the left-field wall, against Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals' starter and Delgado's former Blue Jays teammate. And the Mets added what they considered to be an insurance run against Josh Hancock in the sixth, when Lo Duca's double to left scored Reyes from first base.

The first home run came in the first. Carpenter had retired one batter when Delgado struck. Reyes led off the first with a double to right and moved to third on Lo Duca's sacrifice bunt. After Carlos Beltran walked -- his sixth walk of the postseason -- Delgado crushed a 1-1 pitch into the left-center field bleachers, giving the Mets a 3-0 lead in the first inning for the second time this postseason. They scored three runs in the first in Game 3 of the NLDS.

Delgado giveth back in the second, misplaying a ground ball by Spiezio after Maine allowed the first of five walks, to Edmonds. A walk to Juan Encarnacion loaded the bases. After Ronnie Belliard popped out, Maine had only the bottom of the order to deal with. But Yadier Molina lined a single over Delgado -- the first baseman jumped and extended his glove upward -- for two runs before Maine struck out Carpenter and retired David Eckstein on a soft, quasi popup that second baseman Jose Valentin handled in short center.

A leadoff double by Endy Chavez, playing left field for the injured Floyd, a sacrifice bunt by Maine and Reyes' single to right produced a 4-2 lead. But Edmonds hit his home run in the third, after a one-out walk to Pujols.

"But then we came back and took another lead," Green said. "We expected to do that, and we did."

And, right then, they expected to win.

Now what do they expect?