NEW YORK – With the Joe Torre debate raging, Willie Randolph hardly has been the most talked-about manager in New York in the last few days. With Lou Piniella also prominently in that mix, the Mets’ skipper might not even be in the top two.

But Randolph is the only one still slated to manage a few games this season.

GM Omar Minaya said the Mets “better come ready to play” against Tony La Russa’s Cardinals in the NLCS, and believes his team’s division series sweep of the Dodgers proves that Randolph is the right man to get the Mets to do just that.

“Willie did a great job in the series. . . . He took some bold chances, to be honest with you, that even myself, I was like, “OK,’ ” Minaya said on a conference call Monday. “I take my cap off to him, for a rookie manager to manage in New York in a playoff situation against a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers. . . . Willie did a very good job.

“It goes to show you, when we hired Willie, the one thing that stood out in the back of my mind was that this guy understands winning. He’s been a part of it as a player, a part of it as a coach. . . . You want managing experience and here’s a guy that’s been through it and understands playoff baseball as good or better than anybody that I know of.”

Randolph’s managerial acumen and bold bullpen usage will be put to the test in the NLCS against La Russa, whose team overcame a late-season free fall to upend San Diego in four games in the other division series.

There also is the matter of game-planning for Albert Pujols, the only player in baseball history to hit at least 30 homers, drive in and score at least 100 runs and bat over .300 in each of his first six seasons in the major leagues.

Like the Mets, the Cards have rallied despite long-term injuries to several key players, including lefty starter Mark Mulder and closer Jason Isringhausen, who both are out for the season. Lineup regulars Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein also missed much of the second half before returning down the stretch, and while All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen is expected to play in Game 1 after sitting out Game 4 against the Padres because of fatigue in his surgically repaired left shoulder, his participation isn’t a lock.

Also in the Mets’ favor, defending NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, whose two wins in the first round included seven innings Sunday, likely is unavailable to pitch until Game 3.

“We’re going to be the underdog all the way, hopefully, to the World Series,” Pujols said before the Cards left St. Louis for New York last night. “I don’t care what happened during the season, this is the playoffs. If you win the World Series, nobody cares.”

The Cardinals are in the NLCS for the third straight year – they beat the Astros in 2004 before getting swept in the World Series, then lost to Houston last year.

St. Louis’ path this season hardly resembled those taken by its previous two 100-win teams, but the Cardinals quickly put their near collapse in the NL Central behind them against the Padres.

“You just forget about what happened in the regular season and start anew,” said Yanks castoff Jeff Weaver, who will start Game 1 tomorrow night against Tom Glavine. “That’s what we’re trying to do. The Mets, they’re a powerhouse and they’ve got all the momentum, but we’re going to try to go in and make our mark, too.”

(c) 2006, New York Daily News.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-09-06 2222EDT

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