- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

NEW YORK — Endy Chavez was able to rob Scott Rolen of postseason glory. He couldn’t prevent Yadier Molina from etching his name into baseball’s book of October legends.

Molina, the light-hitting, defensive-minded catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, launched a two-run, ninth-inning homer off reliever Aaron Heilman to cap a riveting Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The 24-year-old’s unlikely blast to left field — just three innings after Chavez stole a sure home run from Rolen — gave the Cardinals a 3-1 victory over the stunned New York Mets at Shea Stadium. It sent St. Louis to the World Series with spirits soaring.

This wild, back-and-forth NLCS saved its best for last. A Cardinals club that won only 83 games during the regular season and entered the series as underdogs to the 97-win Mets, somehow emerged with the pennant thanks to another brilliant pitching performance from Jeff Suppan, a huge home run from Molina and a gutsy escape-job by rookie closer Adam Wainwright in the ninth.

“It was a really hard year for us, and we had our moments,” manager Tony La Russa said. “It was a very even series. We just had the last hit.”

The Mets almost did. Handed a two-run lead following the Molina homer, Wainwright entered from the bullpen and immediately gave up back-to-back singles to a New York squad that was cheered on all night by a sellout crowd of 56,357. With the winning run at the plate, Wainwright calmly struck out pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd and got Jose Reyes to line out to center. Then, after walking Paul Lo Duca to load the bases, he struck out slugger Carlos Beltran looking at a wicked curveball.

The Cardinals mobbed one another in the middle of the infield, exhausted from this emotional series, yet thrilled to be headed to Detroit for the start of the World Series against the Tigers tomorrow night.

“There’s always peaks and valleys, and today and the whole year, we were able to keep playing,” said Suppan, who earned series MVP honors after posting an 0.60 ERA in two starts. “We never gave up and always believed in ourselves.”

Suppan was outstanding, but his effort last night would have gone for naught without Molina, who has only 16 home runs in three major league seasons but had already gone deep once in this series. There was no doubt about his second. With one out and a man on first, he clubbed a first-pitch changeup from Heilman into the left-field bullpen, silencing a raucous crowd and snapping a 1-1 tie that had stood since the second inning.

“I was looking for that changeup, and he left it for me over the middle,” Molina said. “I put my best swing on it.”

The man who scored in front of Molina, Rolen, might have been the happiest guy in the building because it looked like he was going to be denied after getting robbed by Chavez in the sixth.

In an identical situation — one out and a man on first — Rolen crushed a fastball from Oliver Perez deep to left for what surely was going to be the two-run homer that put St. Louis ahead and on its way to the pennant.

But Chavez, the man who couldn’t win the Washington Nationals’ leadoff job in the franchise’s first spring training, leaped at the fence. He timed the jump perfectly, extended his right arm well over the top of the wall and made the catch.

It took a half-second for the crowd to realize it, but Chavez had just made one of the greatest catches in postseason history. Even better, he had the presence of mind to fire the ball back into the infield and double up Jim Edmonds to end the inning and incite a mad celebration in the stadium.

Was Chavez’s gem the greatest defensive play in October history? Let the debate begin. Certain fans will always be partial to Kirby Puckett in 1991, Ron Swoboda in 1969, Sandy Amaros in 1955 and, of course, Willie Mays in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

Chavez, though, can rightfully stand alongside those men, for his catch was not only spectacular but also came at a critical moment in the seventh game.

Hours earlier, Beltran, the $119 million center fielder, started things off for the Mets with a first-inning base hit to left that he stretched into a double. After Carlos Delgado walked, David Wright fought off an inside fastball from Suppan and blooped it down the right-field line for the RBI single that brought Beltran around with the night’s first run.

The crowd erupted and was still cheering when Perez re-took the mound for the top of the second. Give the Cardinals credit, though: Just as they had done countless times in this series, they took a punch from the Mets and then returned it.

With two singles and a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by No. 8 hitter Ronnie Belliard, St. Louis tied the game 1-1. To that point, New York had scored in 14 different innings in the series; the Cardinals answered with a run of their own an impressive nine times.

Neither team had a chance to test that theory again as the night wore on, because both starting pitchers were absolutely brilliant.

Suppan, who had already tossed eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball in Game 3 at Busch Stadium, picked up right where he left off. In fact, he didn’t allow a single hit following Wright’s first-inning RBI until he departed one batter into the seventh. So in 15 sparkling innings against the Mets this series, the soon-to-be free agent allowed a total of one run and five hits.

Yet Perez matched him pitch-for-pitch last night. The young left-hander, with a 3-13 record and 6.55 ERA that made him statistically the worst starting pitcher in postseason history, came up huge with a performance worthy of this grand stage.

“We didn’t get any big hits, that’s the bottom line,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said. “Suppan was outstanding and the relief corps was outstanding.”

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