ST. LOUIS -- Once Rick Ankiel zinged the first pitch of the game to the backstop, it was bound to be a wild one at Busch Stadium. And it was, with the New York Mets again finding a way to win -- this time, thanks to a late error by a first baseman.
With Ankiel out of control, the Mets took control of the NL championship series. Jay Payton hit an RBI single in the ninth inning and New York beat the St. Louis Cardinals 6-5 on Thursday night for a 2-0 lead. The Mets won their team-record fifth in a row in the postseason, with three of them coming in their final at-bat.
''It's amazing, but we keep coming back,'' Mets pitcher Al Leiter said. ''That's kind of been the way we're playing, very resilient.''
An error by first baseman Will Clark on Robin Ventura's two-hop grounder -- set up Benny Agbayani's first sacrifice bunt of the season. Payton followed with a single off losing pitcher Mike Timlin.
Clark's misplay did not rival Bill Buckner's error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, but the result was the same: Mets win.
''It's a very, very tough loss,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Ankiel made it difficult from the start, hitting the backstop with five of his first 20 pitches.
It was the same kind of meltdown that saw the 21-year-old rookie throw a record five wild pitches in an inning last week in Game 1 against Atlanta.
''Before anybody starts kicking Rick around, I think the blame is on me for putting him out there,'' La Russa said.
New York returns to Shea Stadium for Game 3 Saturday, sending Rick Reed to pitch against Andy Benes.
The Mets' victory also kept them on track for a Subway Series, meaning they may not have to leave New York for the rest of the year. The Yankees and Seattle are tied at one game each in the ALCS.
''I don't care if I go 0-for-10. As long as we win the game, it's no big deal to me,'' said Payton, whose 10th-inning single won Game 2 of the division series at San Francisco.
Turk Wendell wound up with the win and Armando Benitez pitched the ninth for a save in a game that lasted one minute short of four hours. Leiter got a no-decision, leaving him winless in nine postseason starts.
Timo Perez's mad dash around the bases helped New York take a two-run lead in the eighth.
The Mets' late-season sparkplug singled with two outs, took off on Matt Morris' full-count pitch and hustled home when Edgardo Alfonzo hit a soft single into the no man's land of shallow right-center field. Todd Zeile greeted reliever Dave Veres with an RBI single for a 5-3 lead.
The Cardinals came back to tie it in the bottom half, with a run scoring on John Franco's wild pitch and another on pinch-hitter J.D. Drew's double. After pinch-hitter Mark McGwire was intentionally walked, Wendell struck out Craig Paquette to end the inning.
Bad omens abounded for Ankiel, even before he took the mound. There was a full moon above the ballpark and former St. Louis star shortstop Ozzie Smith bounced the ceremonial first pitch.
Ankiel was officially charged with only two wild pitches. All of his crazy tosses, however, came in the same place -- the spot that would be high-and-away to a right-handed hitter.
Ankiel was mercifully pulled after getting only two outs in the first inning. He seemed to be biting his lip as he walked off to sympathetic applause, with fans no doubt wondering whether he had caught the same wildness disease that derailed Mark Wohlers and Steve Blass.
Both teams sported new lineups for Game 2. Mets shortstop Mike Bordick, hit by a pitch in the right thumb a day earlier, did not start while Fernando Tatis, Shawon Dunston, Ray Lankford and Eli Marrero started for St. Louis.
Mike Piazza hit his third career postseason homer, a solo shot off rookie Britt Reames that put the Mets ahead 3-1 in the third.
In the fifth, the Cardinals came back to tie it behind Edgar Renteria's hitting and Ankiel's cheerleading.
Renteria, who had three hits and stole three bases, got it going by grounding an RBI double into the left-field corner. Ankiel led the shouting in the dugout, pumping his fist for emphasis.
Renteria stole third and stayed there when Jim Edmonds hit a shallow fly ball, but Tatis delivered a double that made it 3-all and further revved up the red-clad faithful.
The sellout crowd of 52,250 included Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, who spent the day campaigning in the Midwest.
''I just wanted to come and watch the ballgame,'' he said.
The Mets barely had to swing to score twice in the first against Ankiel.
After Ankiel winged his first pitch, he came back to strike out a looking Perez. Any thought that Ankiel was merely effectively wild ended quickly.
Ankiel threw two more pitches to the backstop while facing Alfonzo, and walked him. At that point, second baseman Fernando Vina trotted to the mound for a brief chat.
When Ankiel let loose with a wild pitch on next offering to Piazza, a cluster of Cardinals visited the rattled rookie. It didn't help, as Ankiel went on to walk Piazza with another wild pitch on a 3-2 count.
At that point, pitching coach Dave Duncan walked out to talk to Ankiel and, after ball one to Zeile, La Russa called the bullpen to get Reames warmed up in a hurry.
''It's a mystery,'' Zeile said. ''Obviously, he's got something in his mind.''
Zeile eventually hit a sacrifice fly and after Ventura walked on four pitches, Ankiel got his fourth visit of the inning, this one from Clark.
But when Agbayani followed with an RBI double, it was painfully apparent that this was not Ankiel's day, either. Duncan made his way out and removed Ankiel.
Notes: Bordick entered in the bottom of the eighth at shortstop. ... Tatis finished the season in a 3-for-36 slump and did not play in the division series.
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