NEW YORK (AP)—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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 wins. Many observers gave them little chance against the 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 ERA 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.
The Cardinals, seeking their first World Series title since 1982, ended a long postseason streak by winning Game 7 on the road after dropping Game 6.
The previous 11 home teams that won Game 6 of an LCS or World Series to stave off elimination also won Game 7. The last road team to win a seventh game after losing Game 6 was Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine at Boston in the 1975 World Series.
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, Rolen pulled Perez’s first 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.”
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.
Chavez watched, too, and finally came out for a curtain call—a rarity for a defensive play.
Perhaps still thinking about his near-miss but more likely bothered by a slick ball, Rolen, a Gold Glove third baseman, threw away David Wright’s slow grounder for a potentially costly error in the bottom of the sixth.
That helped the Mets load the bases with one out, but Suppan struck out Valentin.
The light-hitting Chavez then had a chance to deliver with his bat, but he flied out, leaving him 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position during the series.
“A little tumultuous inning there for No. 27,” Rolen said.
Perez, often leaping over the foul line on his way to the dugout, pitched the game of his life on only three days’ rest.
This from a guy who was demoted to the minors by lowly Pittsburgh in June and finished 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA this season. In fact, he was barely an afterthought when the Mets acquired him with reliever Roberto Hernandez at the July 31 trade deadline.
Perez, however, won Game 4 in St. Louis and gave the Mets all they could have hoped for Thursday.
“We went down fighting,” said injured Mets ace Pedro Martinez, sidelined for the entire postseason. “That’s all you can ask for. We went through a lot of troubles. I’m really proud of everybody. I guarantee next year, if we are healthy, we are going to be in the World Series.”
New York took the lead in the first when Wright blooped an RBI single.
But the Cardinals responded to New York runs throughout the series, and they did it again in the second.
Molina dunked a soft single into short left, putting runners at the corners and setting up Ronnie Belliard’s run-scoring sacrifice bunt.
St. Louis improved to 10-4 in do-or-die Game 7s, the most such wins of any major league team. … The Cardinals lost their previous two Game 7s on the road by a combined score of 26-0.