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Molina's ninth-inning homer lifts Cardinals into World Series

Oct 20, 2006 - 3:45 AM FLUSHING, New York (Ticker) -- Yadier Molina propelled the St. Louis Cardinals into the World Series with a dramatic ninth-inning homer, and Endy Chavez could only watch.

Molina hit a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman in the top of the ninth inning as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series in thrilling fashion with a 3-1 victory over the New York Mets in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series.

Scott Rolen singled with one out in the ninth before Molina belted the first pitch from Heilman (0-1) over the left field fence to break a 1-1 tie.

"It was a changeup a little bit away, the pitch I was looking for," Molina said. "I was just praying and thanking God for the opportunity as I rounded the bases."

Heilman was working his second inning as manager Willie Randolph went with the righthander instead of closer Billy Wagner, who had been shaky in finishing out Game Six.

"I was ready and prepared and unfortunately one pitch got away," Heilman said.

Molina's historic home run sailed over the head of left fielder Chavez, who had made one of the greatest catches in postseason history to keep the score tied at 1-1 just three innings earlier.

The Cardinals clinched the 17th National League pennant in franchise history and second in the last three years. They will meet the Detroit Tigers in Game One of the World Series on Saturday night.

St. Louis won just 83 regular-season games, the fewest of any pennant winner since the 1973 Mets had the same amount. The Cardinals nearly squandered an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Central Division in September before squeaking into the playoffs.

"With a couple of weeks to go, we started to look ahead and we got slapped," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Once we got in, we felt we would be a dangerous club."

Rookie Adam Wainwright sealed the victory despite a shaky ninth. He allowed leadoff singles to Jose Valentin and Chavez before striking out pinch hitter Cliff Floyd looking on a nasty curveball.

Wainwright then got Jose Reyes to line out to center field for the second out before walking Paul Lo Duca to load the bases. But the righthander rebounded to freeze Carlos Beltran on another curveball, sending his teammates flying out of the dugout in total elation.

"I don't get nervous, (but) I got nervous," Wainright admitted. "I don't even know how we got the three outs."

It was bit of redemption that the final out was Beltran, who had dominated St. Louis as a member of the Houston Astros in the 2004 NLCS and hit the game-winning homer in Game One of this series.

"It's tough. But I leave everything I have out there," Beltran said. "I would have loved to get the hit but sometimes you have to live with good memories of this game and sometimes you have to live bad memories. Today was a bad one."

Chavez initially preserved a sixth-inning tie, leaping high over the left field wall to rob Rolen of a two-run homer.

With Jim Edmonds on first and one out, the 6-foot Chavez raced back to the wall and leaped as high as he could in front of the 8-foot fence.

"I didn't have time to make a decision. I just ran and put my glove up," Chavez said.

Chavez snared the ball in the webbing of his glove and quickly threw to second baseman Valentin, whose relay to first doubled off Edmonds.

"I don't think I've ever seen such a big play in such an important situation," said Edmonds, a 13-year veteran and an eight-time Gold Glove winner.

Chavez had a chance for even greater glory in the bottom of the sixth, but flied out with the bases loaded to end the inning. A throwing error by Rolen at third base helped load the bases, but Jeff Suppan struck out Jose Valentin before retiring Chavez.

The catch by Chavez capped a brilliant night for Oliver Perez, who became the second straight unsung Mets starter to come up with a big-time performance with no margin for error.

"He gave us more than we expected, more than a quality start," Mets manager Willie Randolph said.

A host of injuries left Randolph with a depleted postseason pitching staff. But the Mets managed to extend the series to a seventh game with a patchwork rotation coupled with early and frequent use of the bullpen.

Rookie John Maine delivered in Game Six, outdueling Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter on Wednesday to force a deciding game. With limited options, Randolph handed the ball to Perez, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade deadline deal.

Perez was just 3-13 in the regular season and his 6.55 ERA marked the highest of any postseason starter in baseball history. He labored through 5 2/3 innings in Game Four, which was just what the Mets needed in a 12-5 victory.

Perez was even better on Thursday, allowing one run and four hits with two walks and four strikeouts in six innings to keep pace with Suppan.

"Right now I don't feel so good, but I'm happy with how I finished my season," Perez said.

October pressure is nothing new to Suppan, who outdueled Roger Clemens of the Astros in Game Seven of the 2004 NLCS.

Suppan was making his seventh career postseason start and first since dominating the Mets in winning Game Three of this series. He was outstanding once again, yielding one run, two hits and five walks in seven-plus innings to secure NLCS MVP honors.

"I never really thought I'd be in situations like this," Suppan said. "I just go out there and go pitch by pitch."

The Cardinals ended one notable trend in postseason play. The past 11 home teams that evened the LCS or World Series by winning Game Six had gone on to win Game Seven. Before Thursday, the last time that did not happen was in 1975, when Cincinnati defeated Boston in the World Series.

In the process, the Cardinals also ousted a Mets team that had won a league-high 97 games.

"We beat the best team in the National League," said Cardinals second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who drove in the first run for St. Louis.

Randy Flores (1-0) worked a scoreless eighth to pick up the win.

The Mets opened the scoring in the first. Beltran doubled down the left field line with two outs and Carlos Delgado walked before David Wright blooped a single into right field for just his second RBI of the series.

The Cardinals tied it in the second when Edmonds singled, went to third on a base hit by Molina and came home when Belliard pushed a safety squeeze toward second base.

Perez escaped danger in the first, third and fifth. First baseman Delgado dropped a wind-blown fly ball in the top of the first that put Albert Pujols on second. But Perez responded by getting Juan Encarnacion on a fly ball to right field.

Encarnacion also failed to deliver in the third, grounding into an inning-ending double play to waste a leadoff double by David Eckstein.

St. Louis had first and third with one out in the fifth before Perez struck out Preston Wilson and got Pujols to pop up to shortstop.

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