NEW YORK, SEPT. 12 -- Of all the things the New York Mets might have predicted for this weekend, a season-ending injury to Ron Darling and one of the worst performances of Dwight Gooden's brilliant career likely would not have been among them.

But they happened, and less than 24 hours after landing one stunning haymaker, the St. Louis Cardinals got in another this afternoon, scoring five first-inning runs against Gooden and dropping the Mets, 8-1, before an eerily quiet crowd of 47,734 at Shea Stadium.

The back-to-back victories, both coming without star slugger Jack Clark, gave the Cardinals a three-game lead over the Montreal Expos and a 3 1/2-game lead over the defending champion Mets, this after it appeared the lead would evaporate to almost nothing a night earlier.

"Well, we didn't know what to expect coming in here," Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog said. "We hadn't been playing well, and we need Jack in the lineup. We just said we'd try to figure something out."

He said it between bites of pasta in a clubhouse that was more silent than it might have been after a night and a day that appear to have reset his team's course for the playoffs. "Not yet," third baseman Terry Pendleton said. "We know when to celebrate, and it's not time to pop any corks."

These Cardinals weren't the Gashouse Gang, and these Cardinals weren't supposed to win without their only legitimate home run hitter. But they weren't supposed to win Friday night when Darling took a no-hitter and a 4-1 lead into the sixth inning, either.

With one out in the sixth, Darling dived to try to stop a Vince Coleman bunt single and essentially the Mets season had taken a drastic downward spiral. Although Darling stayed in to pitch one more inning, he had suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb that would send him into surgery today. If the surgery goes well, he'll be "100 percent healed by spring training," General Manager Frank Cashen said.

Before Friday, Darling had been the only Mets starter not to make the disabled list this season. "I guess we've completed the cycle now," Manager Davey Johnson said.

Three innings after Darling's injury, with the Cardinals down to their last strike, Pendleton hit a game-tying homer. And St. Louis won, 6-4, in 10 innings.

As a cool, damp breeze blew across Queens today, the Mets were never in the game because left-hander Greg Mathews, 25, tossed the third complete game of his career and the Cardinals pinged out seven singles and an Ozzie Smith double.

If the Cardinals aren't the best team in the game, they're certainly the most efficient, today stealing three bases and turning four walks into four runs. Gooden was all over the place in the first inning, going to full counts on four consecutive hitters and walking three straight, one with the bases loaded.

But the Cardinals took advantage of their chances, making only two outs with a runner in scoring position.

"Eight runs is eight runs," Cardinals center fielder Willie McGee said. "They score with home runs. We score with stolen bases and singles. It's all the same."

Gooden (13-6) would agree with that, after allowing six runs and five hits in two innings, his shortest appearance ever.

"It was obvious he didn't have much today," Johnson said. "He's had the flu, and after the second inning, I sent him home and said I might bring him back a day early next time. I didn't have any qualms about sending him out there because sometimes guys pitch their best games when they don't feel good. In hindsight, it wasn't the best thing. When you play the Cardinals, you'd better have your control. You put guys on, and you've got some problems. They put the ball in play, and they'll run you out of the game."

The Cardinals started this game just as they'd ended Friday's 10-inning victory. They refused to swing at bad pitches, they plinked singles just out of the reach of infielders and they were brilliant on the bases.

With one out, Smith grounded a 3-2 pitch down the right field line for a double. That was the hardest-hit ball against Gooden, but it was also the first of four consecutive full counts.

He then walked Tommy Herr, Dan Driessen and Willie McGee on 3-2 pitches, with McGee's walk forcing in Smith for a 1-0 lead. Pendleton's sacrifice fly to center scored Herr. John Morris dribbled a single up the middle to score Driessen for a 3-0 lead. Gooden then made the transformation from bad pitches to bad luck.

He made what appeared to be a solid 0-2 pitch to Tony Pena, who lifted it off his knees and sliced it into shallow right field, just out of the reach of second baseman Tim Teufel. Morris had stolen second just before the pitch, and he and McGee both raced home on Pena's hit to make it 5-0.

Coleman stole his 99th base in setting up a second-inning run and his 100th of the season helped manufacture a run in the seventh before Mathews (10-9) lost his shutout in the Mets seventh.

Matthews once blew two leads in a single week this season, and after getting the six runs, he said, "I was determined to pitch like it was 0-0. I was determined to go as hard and as far as I could. We needed the win, but we really needed the day off for our bullpen."