NEW YORK, SEPT. 11 -- The St. Louis Cardinals were down to their last out in the ninth inning, and they trailed by two runs. Not only were they were about to lose their fourth straight game, they were about to have a lead that had been 10 1/2 games seven weeks ago shrink to half a game.

It didn't. Terry Pendleton's two-out, two-run homer in the ninth kept the game going, and Tommy Herr's single in the 10th gave the Cardinals a 6-4 victory over the stunned New York Mets and a crowd of 51,795 at Shea Stadium.

Just when it looked as if the Cardinals' season might turn from wonderful to terrible in a single week, it has suddenly turned again, with their lead back to 2 1/2 over the Mets and three over Montreal in the National League East.

It has turned around enough that Mets reliever Roger McDowell, who allowed the tying runs in the ninth, said: "We've got to win the next one. There's no other way to look at it. This was a nightmare."

As if this kind of loss wasn't enough, the Mets (80-60) might also have lost pitcher Ron Darling, who allowed a run and a bunt single in six-plus innings tonight. He sprained his right thumb in the sixth and, because of it, left the game in the seventh. He will be X-rayed Saturday, but Mets Manager Dave Johnson said the injury "looked serious."

So it goes for the 82-57 Cardinals, who keep surviving when logic says they shouldn't. They came here with their best hitter, Jack Clark, out with a sprained ankle. Then ace pitcher John Tudor allowed four runs in five innings. Then for eight innings, the Cardinals had only the bunt single by Coleman, and their highlights had been Coleman and Willie McGee getting picked off base.

How do they do it? Without Clark, they got seven hits. Without Tudor being effective, Whitey Herzog had to use five pitchers, with Ken Dayley pitching the last two innings for his eighth victory.

"I like to win this kind of game against anyone," Herzog said. "I don't care if it's the Mets. That was a fast turn of events. We just haven't played well. We're still under .500 since the break (26-27), and, if the Mets had gotten the last out, we'd have seven runs in our last four games. We've still got 23 games left, and this thing isn't going to be settled in one day."

With the game tied, 4-4, Coleman got a one-out single off Jesse Orosco (3-8). Ozzie Smith singled to left, and Coleman sprinted to third. Tommy Herr then bounced a single up the middle for a 5-4 lead, and Dan Driessen's fielder's-choice grounder allowed Smith to score the sixth run.

The real dramatics occurred earlier, in the ninth when the Cardinals trailed, 4-1. Driessen, the replacement for Clark, struck out with Smith on second for the second out. McGee dribbled a single through the middle to score Smith to close the score to 4-2. That was only the Cardinals' second hit of the game and the first to leave the infield.

McDowell then hung a pitch that Pendleton hit over the center field fence for a tie. All of a sudden, Shea Stadium turned eerily silent, and when Dave Green doubled, McDowell was booed mightily. He got out of the inning by striking out Jose Oquendo.

"Eight times out of 10 Roger saves that game for us," Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez said. "He's only human, and he's going to blow some. You have to give Pendleton some credit, too. I guess that was a typical Mets-Cardinals game."

In the other clubhouse, Pendleton accepted the congratulations of his teammates and said, yes, it had been a home-run pitch.

"He left it out over the plate," he said. "We really needed that one. This had been a bad trip {0-3 in Montreal} and we needed anything to get turned around."

The Cardinals had no idea how this day would end because it started so badly. In the first inning, leadoff man Coleman walked. Smith lined what might have been a single to center field, but the ball glanced off Darling's wrist and ricocheted upward.

Mets shortstop Rafael Santana caught the ball in the air and threw to first to double off Coleman.

That helped get Darling out of the first, and with hundreds of fans still in the parking lots or stacked up on Grand Central Parkway, the Mets hit the Cardinals fast in the bottom of the inning.

Tim Teufel singled with one out to end an 0-for-16 slump, and Hernandez lined a low and outside fastball into left field. The ball skipped past Coleman and went all the way to the wall for a double and a 1-0 lead. Tudor then left a pitch in the middle of the plate for Strawberry, who turned it into a long homer to right.

Darling nearly let the Cardinals back in the game in the second, walking Driessen and McGee to lead off the inning. Pendleton grounded out to Hernandez to move the runners up, and Driessen scored on John Morris' grounder. McGee went to third, but stayed there when Santana made a spectacular play on Steve Lake's grounder.

Wilson's ninth homer, in the second, made it 4-1. After the walk to McGee in the second, Darling retired 13 Cardinals in a row, a streak that ended with Coleman's bunt single in the sixth, which Darling couldn't handle. Not that it seemed to matter. Coleman stole second, and Darling picked him off for the second out.

Darling walked Smith, but Hernandez speared Herr's grounder for his second outstanding play of the inning and third of the game to end the sixth. But, after Darling walked Driessen to lead off the seventh, Randy Myers relieved. McDowell pitched the eighth and ninth and was in trouble in the eighth before getting a double-play grounder off Coleman's bat. In the ninth, he gave up the lead.

"In a series like this, with a playoff atmosphere, things like this happen," McGee said. "Anything is possible, and you don't give up."