Cards nip Mets, will meet Tigers in World Series

Published 4:47 pm Friday, October 20, 2006

The St. Louis Cardinals enjoyed a quick celebration, and then it was time to go.

Hustle to the airport, hop on a plane and head for the World Series.

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

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Next up for St. Louis, a date with the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night in Game 1 of the World Series.

Hey Motown, here come the Cards.

“I don’t think anybody looks forward to playing us,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.

Adam Wainwright wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth, striking out Cardinals 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 jubilant trip to Detroit as they try for their first World Series title since 1982.

“I think this is the best team, and we proved it,” Molina 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 three innings earlier, could only stand and watch at the fence as the Mets’ title hopes were dashed.

“I’m just so happy for Yadier. What a big hit for us,” slugger Albert Pujols said.

Scott Rolen, robbed of a two-run 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.

“I had one thing on my mind — to send us to Detroit,” Floyd said.

Jose Reyes lined to center for the second out, and 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. “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 spot.

The right-hander 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 perfect inning 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 one run through six innings on only three days’ rest.

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 over the 8-foot wall. 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. The relay doubled up Jim Edmonds at first base as Pujols and the bewildered Cardinals watched from the top step of the dugout in amazement.

“I jumped as high as I can. Like a 10 percent chance in my mind I could catch it,” Chavez said.

Fans chanted his name 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.

“We went down fighting,” said injured Mets ace Pedro Martinez, sidelined for the entire postseason. “I guarantee next year, if we are healthy, we are going to be in the World Series.”