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10/15/06 2:21 AM ET

La Russa, Cards rolling along

St. Louis skipper is putting his team in position to win

ST. LOUIS -- Is this becoming the Tony La Russa National League Championship Series?

Perhaps not, with players on both sides emerging as the rightful impact performers of an NLCS that continues Sunday night with the Cardinals holding a two games to one edge over the Mets.

Still, St. Louis' most influential players continue to be the ones put in their roles by La Russa, whose instincts have never been sharper.

The veteran manager hit the trifecta-plus-one in the Cardinals' 5-0 win Saturday night:

• Scott Rolen, the third baseman in the eye of a storm of humility, was returned to the lineup and responded with some brilliant defense, in addition to a sharp single that may have indicated the growing strength in his left shoulder.

• Scott Spiezio, shifted to left field to retain his bat in the lineup, clocked in with another clutch two-run triple.

• Preston Wilson, inserted in right, made an athletic throw to cut down Jose Valentin's bid for a double, and the Mets' hopes for a rally, in the fifth.

• Jeff Suppan, who switched slots with Chris Carpenter following the Wednesday rainout of Game 1, was sharp in eight shutout innings.

"He's making all the right moves," St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein said of his manager. "Supp was unbelievable, [and] Scott keeps getting big hits."

La Russa may make his most conspicuous move yet for Sunday night's Game 4, possibly benching Spiezio against New York left-hander Oliver Perez, who will meet rookie righty Anthony Reyes at 8:05 p.m. ET.

Spiezio is merely the Cards' hottest weapon, with five RBIs in the last two games.

"I'm not sure he's playing [Sunday]," said La Russa, wrestling with a tough decision that faces every manager. "You know, there's a lineup to write, and it's going to be tough to get him in there."

Omitting Spiezio, because he would favor Juan Encarnacion's chances against Perez, would be tough. Just as leaving Rolen out of Friday's lineup had been tough.

But La Russa makes the difficult decisions if he thinks it enhances his team's chances at victory. He separates professional evaluation from personal feelings.

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"You're responsible to take your best shot," La Russa said. "You can't sit there and try to figure out which shot is the one that draws the most compliments or the least criticism. It doesn't work that way."

So it has come to this for the Mets, who two days ago were riding an eight-game winning streak and fantasizing about becoming the first team to run the three-tiered playoff table: The key person between them and a dire 3-1 hole is a 25-year-old left-hander with one win since May 17.

But that one was a gem for Perez, reinforcing the belief he is capable of special things whenever he takes the mound. On Sept. 6, he blanked the Braves on a route-going five-hitter.

That overpowering evening, and the fact the Cardinals had a losing record (23-24) against left-handed starters, has the Mets thinking positive.

"I know nothing about pitching," Cliff Floyd said, "but I always believe, you know, you go on your recent outings, how you felt. I think that can carry over, hopefully."

One thing the Mets do not want to carry over is their sudden inability to deliver the clutch hit. Since holding a 6-4 lead after six innings of Game 2, they have been outscored 10-0. For the series, their hitters are 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

"This team goes out and plays hard every day," said New York manager Willie Randolph. "Suppan pitched real well, but we'll be ready to play again [Sunday]. We always are."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.