Thursday, October 19, 2006

NLCS Game 7: A Classic

Cards ride stellar pitching & clutch hitting to their 17th World Series berth Cards 3, Mets 1
Cards win series, 4-3
WP: Flores
LP: Heilman
SV: Wainwright
HR: STL:Molina

It was a Game 7 classic that will go down in the history books because it had all the elements of great Shakespearean theater: fantastic pitching, an eye-popping defensive play, and 9th inning theatrics that produced both a hero & a goat. The St. Louis Cardinals & New York Mets were deadlocked at 3 games apiece in the series and at 1-1 in Game 7 for more than 7 innings before an unlikely hero provided a 9th inning blast that would catapult the Cards back into the World Series for the second time in 3 years. (You might remember the first time-2004, the Year of the Sawx.)

Proven Game 7 vet Jeff Suppan (see his win in the 2004 NLCS vs. 'Roid-ger Clemens for proof) was all business when he took the mound for the visitors. With his Jeff Reardon-like beard, steely glaze and profound confidence Suppan had the calming effect of Mr. Rodgers as he had the Mets hitters baffled most of the night. He allowed a first inning run after getting the first two out on a double by Beltran, walk to Delagado and the first clutch hit of the series by David Wright (.160, 1HR, 2RBI), but was lights-out from there. He ended up going 7 innings, allowing 2 hits and the 1 run with 5 walks and 2Ks. But it was his demeanor, approach, and attitude that the Cards seemed to thrive off of all night long.
On the other side Mets starter Oliver Perez matched his mound mate in confidence & ability if not experience & statistics. Perez had a disappointing 2006 campaign with 2 teams, the Pirates (2-10, 6.63ERA) and Mets (1-3, 6.63) for a combined 3-13, 6.55 season, and he had been tagged for 5 runs and 9 hits (including 3 HRs) in the Mets 12-5 Game 4 win. But managers & analysts rave about his "stuff" and tonight he showed the world why. Pitching with a nervous coolness Perez matched Suppan stride for stride; he gave the short-lived 1-run lead right back in the 2nd on singles by Edmonds & C Yadier Molina (more on him soon) and a safety squeeze bunt by Raphael Belliard that tied the game at 1. But it would remain that way as Perez turned in 6 innings of 4 hit ball with 2BBs & 4 Ks. It was a much needed shot in the arm for a team that had been nervous about their Game 7 pitching options, but a guy that Mets manager had the utmost confidence in when naming him the starter. Willie instincts were right on this call.

The starters gave way to their bullpens in the late innings to take over in a tie game, but if not for those two outstanding performances this game would never have been the classic it ended up becoming.

Endy Chavez had been a little-known utility player with a .269 career average in 569 games covering 6 seasons and 5 teams. Now he will be forever known as a playoff (near) hero, as his spectacular, home run-robbing catch in the 6th inning was one of the more clutch, and unbelievable, catches you will ever see in the postseason. With Perez in his first jam since the 2nd inning, Edmonds on first and Rolen coming up, Randolph went to the mound to chat with his pitcher. After the pep talk, Rolen (bad shoulder & all) promptly took the next pitch to deep left for what appeared to be a momentum-swinging 2-run homer. Not so fast my friend; Chavez watched the ball all the way, timed his leap, and at the precise moment the ball was coming down, leapt up, stretched his arm & glove to the fullest extent and snagged the ball as it was coming down on the other side of the wall. As it popped to the top of his glove and Chavez came down into the padded wall with a thud the silent stadium erupted in cheers. But then Chavez had the presence of mind to throw back to the infield to double Edmonds off first; Jimbo was already well around second when Chavez caught it. Guess he thought it was gone, too. As Chavez came off the field to thunderous applause from the fans and numerous celebrations from his teammates, it appeared to be one of those history-making catches that would propel a team to a victory and then be talked about for decades to come as the turning point of the game.

Alas for Mets fans, that play was not to be the turning point in this masterpiece.

By now there was a steady drizzle falling, the fans were nervous and everyone was wondering what would come first: extra innings or a rain delay? Luckily for all of us the answer was neither. It turns out that the 9th inning would provide the closure this long, strange series needed, and it would come in grand style. as is so often the case in these types of games, one man had to be the hero, rendering the other the goat.
Aaron Heilman, a dead ringer for a young Al Leiter, had taken over for Chad Bradford in the 8th and got 3 quick outs (sandwiched around a Pujols IBB, his 2nd of the game.) To start the 9th Heilman got Edmonds to strike out while making him look silly in the process and it looked like either bottom of the 9th or extra inning dramatics were imminent possibilities. But then Scott Rolen took the 8th pitch he saw from Heilman to left for his 2nd 9th inning single in 2 games. GULP. This is where Mets fans began sweating profusely and looking more worried than an expectant father. In an instant they knew why they were worried. Light hitting (6 HRs all year) catcher Yadier Molina instantly injected his name into the lore of postseaon baseball when he took the next pitch from Heilman deep over the wall in left for a monstrous 2-run, game deciding home run that left the stadium so silent you could hear every Card player & coach congratulate the youngest member of the Catching Molina Brothers (Bengie & Jose are the others.) It was a postseason moment that appeared to be frozen in time: the fans waving their white hankys, the rain & mist shrouding the stadium, Endy Chavez leaping, this time futilely, to try and bring the ball back again, and the Cards celebrating with jubilation as if they had just lifted an enormous weight off of their shoulders.
They had; it was the weight of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations after a 2nd half swoon left the Cards as the team with the worst record in this postseason and a heavy underdog in this series.
The Mets still had a chance in the bottom of the 9th and gave their tortured (oh, boo hoo, it's been since 1986 since you won it all-waaaaaaaa) fans a glimmer of hope when Jose Valentin & Chavez singled off rookie Cardinal closer Adam Wainwright. But the kid, who took over for injured Jason Isringhausen near the end of the season, got tough from there. Foregoing the bunt opportunity and playing for the win (2nd guesses, anyone?) Randolph sent out gimpy Cliff Floyd in an attempt to get an extra base hit to tie or win the game right there. Bad move, Willie, as Floyd struck out on a NASTY breaking ball from Wainwright that said "this game is mine." Jose Reyes then lined out to Edmonds in center, and after a walk to LoDuca loaded the bases, Wainwright caught Cardinal Killer Carlos Beltran looking at another filthy yakker to end the game and the season for New York.
So the Cards will meet the Tigers (remember them) in the World Series beginning Saturday night in frigid Motown. Suppan was named the NLCS MVP for his 2 outstanding performances, not to mention his 1 home run, and a jubilant Cardinal team will have very little time to celebrate & enjoy this magnificent win.

For the Mets is yet another heartbreaking ending to the team that hasn't been able to capture a title since that putrid 1986 crown. Maybe, with all the stupid "1986/2006" signs smattered all over the place, and numerous references to Mookie Wilson, Bill Buckner, the Mets have got a little curse of their own going on here.

But if this game was part of a curse, then so be it.

Because I do live for this.

But what baseball fan doesn't?

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