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Mets' defense shines, must continue

Mets' defense shines, must continue

NEW YORK -- The Mets are known for their muscle in the heart of their order and their speed at the top. It's a lineup that can keep an opposing pitcher up nights.

Yet there are other impressive, if less heralded elements in manager Willie Randolph's troupe -- and they came into play in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Thursday as Tom Glavine and the bullpen made Carlos Beltran's mammoth two-run homer stand up for a 2-0 decision over the Cards.

If the Mets are to go on and claim this series from St. Louis, a defense that made all the plays -- the easy ones, the tough ones, the spectacular ones, the necessary ones -- must continue to function at a high level behind John Maine, Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez, presumably, before the rotation spins back to Glavine in Game 5, if necessary.

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These are not, as a group, overpowering pitchers, capable of racking up strikeouts in quantity. A defense can't rest behind pitchers who keep the ball in play.

"We pride ourselves on playing good defense," Randolph, the old second baseman, said, having fashioned one in his own solid, dependable image.

The spectacular Game 1 plays were delivered by left fielder Endy Chavez and second baseman Jose Valentin.

Chavez raced to the rescue in left field in the fifth inning, three innings after replacing a hobbling Cliff Floyd. After Jim Edmonds' one-out single, Ronnie Belliard sent a Glavine delivery toward left-center, but Chavez's swift legs enabled him to overcome a bad jump and put him in position to make a diving stab.

"Defense is a part of the game I can control," said Chavez, whose value increases if Floyd can't make it back on his strained left Achilles tendon. "I felt bad for Cliff, that he had to come out of the game, but I was ready to help."

The second out of the ninth inning behind Billy Wagner came when Valentin ranged behind second to backhand Juan Encarnacion's ground ball and throw him out with a flourish, elevating and firing.

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"Offense can't be there every night," Valentin, the veteran, said. "Some nights you have to win with pitching and defense. That's what we did in this game. Sometimes you make a good defensive play, and it gives you more confidence when you hit."

In the third, third baseman David Wright had moved to his left to start a double play on David Eckstein's line drive. An inning later, Beltran came racing in to grab Encarnacion's sinking fly ball and double up Albert Pujols at first.

"We did a tremendous job defensively," Wright said. "Chavez comes in and makes a tremendous play. That changes the momentum of the game. We were able to turn double plays, and those are momentum-changers.

"In the postseason, you're talking about a countdown to 27 outs. Everything is magnified. It's a huge momentum swing to make the plays we made."

Catcher Paul Lo Duca has been around long enough to understand the profound impact of solid defense, the confidence and stability it can give a pitching staff.

"Everybody talks about our lineup," Lo Duca said, "but they don't give our pitching or defense enough credit. We play solid defense. When we play like that, we're tough to beat."

The countdown toward 27 outs begins again on Friday night behind Maine.

"You have to catch the ball, [in] any short series, any playoff situation," Randolph said. "You have to make the plays at the right time."

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

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