NEW YORK, SEPT. 13 -- The weekend of the big showdown ended in the rain and puddles of half-empty Shea Stadium tonight, and, if the scene was less than dramatic, the results were not.

After two rain delays totaling almost 3 1/2 hours, the New York Mets avoided a devastating weekend sweep by getting a seven-hitter from rookies David Cone and Randy Myers and slogging out a 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

On a day when they could have fallen 4 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East, the Mets instead moved back within 2 1/2 of the Cardinals, with the third-place Montreal Expos three back. If this weekend's series decided anything, it was to make it even more likely the NL East will be decided the last week of the season when the Expos and Mets each will visit Busch Stadium for three games.

"Yeah, it'll probably come down to that," Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog said. "The thing is, we got to start hitting. If we put something together, we could take care of things, but we're just not hitting."

The Cardinals still lead the NL in scoring, but without injured first baseman Jack Clark (35 homers, 106 RBI) they don't have many managers reaching for their Rolaids. Terry Pendleton's ninth-inning homer Friday was their only one of the series, and 16 of their last 18 hits were singles (including six of seven today).

Without Clark, their best weapon remains leadoff man Vince Coleman (.296, 108 runs, 100 stolen bases), but on today's muddy track his three singles resulted in no stolen bases and only one run.

Worse for the Cardinals is that the situation might not get better any time soon. Clark's sprained right ankle is still so sore that he has been sent back to St. Louis for further examination. When Clark missed 97 games last season, Herzog said it was like "trying to fight a war with a popgun." Now, with a championship in reach, the Cardinals are again holding a popgun.

Which the Mets know and want the Cardinals to know they know.

"The race is up in the air," Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez said, "and I still feel they're struggling offensively. Twenty games is a long time to go, and we'll see whether they're going to bounce out of it or not."

The Mets didn't knock down any fences today, either, and in fact the biggest hit of the day could have been a perfect bunt single by catcher Gary Carter. It came in the fourth inning of a 1-1 game and drove in Kevin McReynolds from third with a lead the Mets never gave back.

"That was one good play," Herzog said. "A smart play. Pendleton made a heckuva play on it, but he couldn't get him."

Although today's game was officially a sellout, only 21,285 showed up on a day when Mets officials, shooting to become the second franchise in history to draw three million fans, were determined to play the game at any cost. They did play it, and they did avoid a late-season makeup game when the Cardinals might have Clark back in the lineup.

And after blowing a three-run ninth inning lead Friday, learning that pitcher Ron Darling is out for the season because of a thumb injury and getting blown out Saturday, the Mets didn't have a bad weekend after all.

Cone (5-3) allowed one earned run in 6 1/3 innings, and Myers finished by allowing no hits and striking out five of the nine Cardinals he faced.

Myers' fastball was clocked at 94 mph, and Manager Davey Johnson stayed with him despite having Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco available.

"He handled himself like a 10-year veteran," Hernandez said. "We hate losing Ronnie, but Randy gives us one more guy we can count on. He may be a big plus before this thing is over."

The start of the game was delayed 1 hour 40 minutes and, after Coleman beat out an infield single in the top of the first, the rain resumed.

After another delay, this one 1 hour 41 minutes, play resumed and went the distance although outfielders waded in ankle-deep water.

The Cardinals scored first, getting a run in the top of the fourth. Willie McGee led off with a double and Pendleton walked.

John Morris hit a slow grounder to Hernandez, who fielded the ball and threw to first, where Cone couldn't handle his throw. Oddly, Morris was credited with a hit and Hernandez given an error as McGee scored.

Cone walked Tony Pena to load the bases and, with a chance to break open the game, struck out Cardinals starter Danny Cox (9-7) and got Coleman and Ozzie Smith to hit soft grounders.

The Mets scored twice in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs, Strawberry splashed a double past Morris in right and scored when McReynolds tripled off the center field fence. He came home on Carter's bunt.

"In 1975 and '76, before all the wear and tear, I used to get 10 bunt hits a year," Carter said. "It just seemed like a good time for it, and I'd taken a peek down there and saw that Pendleton was playing way back."

The Mets made it 4-1 in the last of the fifth on RBI singles by Wally Backman and Hernandez, and when Cone got in trouble in the seventh Johnson brought in Myers, who got Tommy Herr and David Green out to end the seventh, then sailed through the last two innings.

"We got knocked down twice in this series," Johnson said. "We had to knock them down. This game was important psychologically and every other way. When we found out we were losing Ronnie yesterday, I think it took the wind out of our sails. But I really believe we'll be okay."