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ST. LOUIS -- And now it comes down to this: right-hander John Maine has the burden of staving off elimination for the Mets in the National League Championship Series when he takes the mound at Shea Stadium in Game 6 on Wednesday night.
The start could very well be Maine's last of the postseason, what with Orlando Hernandez making noises about returning from his right calf muscle injury if the Mets defeat the Cardinals and meet the Tigers in the World Series. It also could be the Mets' last game of the postseason as the upstart Cards lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2.
"It's a tough spot for anybody, let alone John Maine," said Tom Glavine, Tuesday night's Game 5 losing pitcher, about the young man who will be making only his third playoff start, all this postseason. "When you're one game away from elimination in the playoffs, I don't care who you send out there, it's a tough situation. Obviously, we want John to go out and give us a chance to win. And hopefully we can get back to swinging the bats the way we did the other night and give him a little bit of a cushion."
It'll be a Game 2 rematch of Maine against Cardinals ace right-hander Chris Carpenter, who didn't make it past the fifth inning as the Mets' offense gave Maine that requisite cushion. They scored three times in the bottom of the first, but Maine couldn't hold the lead.
He was lifted after four innings, having walked five, while striking out three and allowing four runs on only two hits -- Yadier Molina's two-run double and Jim Edmonds' two-run homer. The Mets ultimately squandered three leads in the game and lost, 9-6, when closer Billy Wagner was pelted for three runs in the ninth.
All that is looming big now with the Mets needing a pair of wins at home to ascend to the World Series, beginning Saturday night in Detroit.
"It's not up to John Maine to put us on his shoulders," Glavine said. "It's not anything like that. But we certainly want him to do what he's done for most of the year, and that's keep us in the game."
What Maine must accomplish was underscored on Sunday night when Oliver Perez, pitching for the first time in the postseason, worked into the sixth inning in a game the Mets won, 12-5, to knot the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
Perez allowed five runs on nine hits, including homers by Edmonds, Molina and David Eckstein. But the left-hander walked only one and was around the plate all night. He also earned the win.
"He pitched great," said Maine on Monday before he traveled back to New York a day ahead of the team. "He went out there, got over five innings, and that's all we wanted from him. We wanted some innings and for him to keep it close. That's my goal every time I go out there -- log some innings and keep it close. We're similar pitchers. We have similar games. He pitched great and picked us up, big-time."
Maine made only 24 starts in the Major Leagues before Hernandez sustained his right leg injury and had to be scratched from a Game 1 start in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers.
Suddenly, Mets manager Willie Randolph turned to the relatively inexperienced Maine and handed him the ball for the opener. Maine professed to have a bit of jangled nerves heading into that initial playoff outing and his start on Friday in the NLCS.
The right-hander didn't get the decision against the Dodgers that night at Shea Stadium. He was yanked with one out in fifth inning and the Mets leading, 4-1, so left-hander Pedro Feliciano could face Kenny Lofton. Lofton struck out. Maine allowed one run and six hits, while walking two and striking out five in a game the Mets eventually won, 6-5, on their way to a sweep in the best-of-five series.
But Maine said nerves weren't the issue his next time out, when he was much less effective. Keeping the ball in the zone was.
"I don't think it was so much nerves," Maine said. "I don't want to say it was [lack of] focus. I go out there every pitch trying to focus. It was just one of those games, and it happened at a bad time. It's something that I can fix, something I'll work on between starts. If I just go out there, feel fresh and throw strikes, I'll be all right."
Asked what adjustments he was making for his big Game 6 start, Maine added: "There's little things you can do in between starts. You have your bullpens and there might be something minor that maybe [pitching coach] Rick [Peterson] would point out."
Maine was acquired along with Jorge Julio from the Orioles in the Kris Benson trade last winter and was part of the Major League tryout camp the Mets conducted this past season as injuries beset the starting staff.
Maine was 6-5 with a 3.60 ERA in 16 appearances, 15 of the them starts. It was enough for Randolph to put his faith in Maine as the postseason began. Maine also had 71 strikeouts in 91 innings. His propensity for whiffing hitters is what caught the eye of Mets general manager Omar Minaya when he made the Benson deal.
"If I'm not mistaken, one year he lead all of Minor League baseball in strikeouts," Minaya said. "That stands out. When you have a swing-and-miss pitch, that's something of value. That, plus size and youth. He's only 24 years old. We had Benson for how many more years? Two more years? I felt that when we traded for [Maine], over the next five years, this kid was going to win more games than Benson is going to win."
With Hernandez still on the shelf and not even on the roster at least until the World Series, Maine will get the ball again on Wednesday. He'll have perhaps one more postseason start to try to prove Minaya right.