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Archive for Friday, October 20, 2006

Cardinals World Series-bound

Molina’s home run vaults St. Louis past Mets in NLCS Game 7

October 20, 2006

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— The first long drive to left field wound up in the webbing of Endy Chavez's glove as he crashed against the wall.

The second one sailed clear over his head.

And that's what sent Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series.

Molina's tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning and another Game 7 gem by Jeff Suppan helped St. Louis overcome Chavez's astounding grab, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 victory over the New York Mets on a rainy Thursday night for the NL championship.

"I think this is the best team - and we proved it," Molina said.

Adam Wainwright wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth, striking out St. Louis nemesis Carlos Beltran to end it and leaving a stunned crowd in deflated silence just moments after it had Shea Stadium shaking.

And with that, the Cardinals earned their second pennant in three years and a date with the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night in Game 1 of the World Series.

Hey Motown, here come the Cards.

"I'm just so happy for Yadier. What a big hit for us," slugger Albert Pujols said.

A .216 hitter with only six home runs during the regular season, Molina drove the first pitch he saw from reliever Aaron Heilman into New York's bullpen for a 3-1 lead in the ninth.

"I just left it up," Heilman said. "I was just trying to throw it down and away. Instead it stayed right over the middle of the plate."

Chavez, who made one of the most memorable catches in postseason history just three innings earlier, could only stand and watch at the fence as the Mets' title hopes were dashed.

St. Louis' Yadier Molina, left, celebrates with Albert Pujols after hitting a two-run, ninth-inning homer. The blast was decisive in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory Thursday night in New York.

St. Louis' Yadier Molina, left, celebrates with Albert Pujols after hitting a two-run, ninth-inning homer. The blast was decisive in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory Thursday night in New York.

"Everybody said I don't hit, and I proved them wrong," said Molina, a standout defensive catcher.

Scott Rolen, robbed of a homer by Chavez in the sixth, started the St. Louis rally with a single.

But the Mets, resilient throughout their stirring season, nearly came back in the ninth.

Jose Valentin and Chavez singled before pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd struck out looking. Jose Reyes lined to center for the second out, but Paul Lo Duca drew a walk that loaded the bases.

That brought up Beltran, who homered three times in the series after hitting .417 with four home runs for Houston in the 2004 NLCS against St. Louis. Wainwright, a rookie filling in for injured closer Jason Isringhausen, got ahead in the count immediately and froze Beltran with a curveball for strike three.

"I can't let my team down right there," said Wainwright, who has three saves in the postseason. "Our team deserves it. We battled so hard in the playoffs."

The Cardinals, with their 17th pennant in hand, charged out of the dugout and mobbed Wainwright in front of the mound.

During the champagne celebration in their clubhouse, players gathered around several times and chanted "Jo-se, Jose, Jose, Jose," mocking the popular chant Mets fans crow when Reyes comes to the plate.

St. Louis stumbled down the stretch and won the NL Central with only 83 victories. Many observers gave them little chance against the favored Mets, who tied the crosstown Yankees for the best regular-season record in baseball at 97-65.

"I don't think anyone expected, especially late in the season, that the St. Louis Cardinals would be in the World Series," Rolen said.

Suppan, who beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS, took home the MVP award this time for two outstanding starts. He limited the Mets to one run and five hits in 15 innings, and once again was at his best in a big game.

Suppan, who won Game 3, is 106-101 lifetime, but 2-1 with a 1.69 earned-run average in five NLCS starts. He pitched into the eighth inning Thursday and allowed only two hits - none after the first.

"We never gave up. We always believed in ourselves," Suppan said.

Randy Flores worked a scoreless eighth for the win as the Cardinals' young bullpen came through again.

Oliver Perez, an unlikely starter for the injury-depleted Mets, matched Suppan most of the night, yielding only one run through six innings.

But New York's normally relentless lineup couldn't muster enough offense.

"It's really disappointing. It was a great game," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "We just didn't get any big hits."

With a runner on in the sixth and Rolen coming up, Randolph went to the mound for a chat with Perez, who was 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA this season.

But Randolph stuck with the kid even though a reliever was warming up - and it nearly cost the Mets.

Rolen pulled the next pitch deep to left and Chavez, a defensive whiz starting because Floyd has an injured Achilles' tendon, raced back to the fence as fast as he could.

In one motion, the 6-foot Chavez jumped with all his might and reached his right arm up and over the 8-foot wall as far as it would stretch. His mouth wide open, he snagged the drive in the tip-top of his glove - the white of the ball showing atop the webbing like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Chavez banged into the padded blue wall, buckling a couple of panels, but landed on his feet and came up firing back into the infield.

Jim Edmonds, who had walked, had already rounded second, so second baseman Valentin relayed to first for a spectacular double play that ended the inning with Pujols and the bewildered Cardinals watching from the top step of the dugout in amazement.

"I had to check because my glove almost went out of my hand. I didn't know if I kept it inside," Chavez said. "I jumped as high as I can. Like a 10 percent chance in my mind I could catch it. I had to improvise myself and do it on the run. See the ball, see the wall and do the thing that I've got to do."

A few Mets raised their arms high as they came off the field, and Perez waited near first base to give a hearty greeting to Chavez, who got more hugs by the bench.

Fans chanted "En-dy Cha-vez!" and roared "Whooaaa!" over and over again as the replay was shown several times on the big video board in left-center.

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