But just as has been the case throughout this degree-of-difficulty season, once it was the absolute drop-dead time, the Cardinals absolutely did not drop dead.
"That's the last guy in the world I want up to bat in that situation," said Wainwright. "But you know what? The way our team has played this year and fought so hard, I wouldn't have it any other way."
The Cardinals will play the American League champion Tigers in the World Series beginning on Saturday night in Detroit.
Molina's homer followed by three innings an agonizing near-miss on the part of Scott Rolen, who was robbed by Mets left fielder Endy Chavez on a stunning catch. The ball went to virtually the same part of the ballpark as Rolen's near-miss, just a bit farther.
"After Chavez's play, I was a little worried," said Jim Edmonds. "Only because of the momentum swing. I didn't think we were going to stop playing, but I just thought the momentum was going to be a tough shift. I've seen that happen for us, as far as hitting big home runs or making big plays. It made me a little worried there, yeah."
The long ball by the usually light-hitting catcher more directly followed a tremendous at-bat by Rolen. The third baseman, who struggled for most of the series, recovered from an 0-2 hole to single to left field. Molina, moved up to the seventh spot in the order for Game 7, brought himself and Rolen home with the biggest hit of his career.
"I just wanted to look for my pitch," Molina said. "I was just trying to look for that pitch and put a good swing on it. If it's not there, I don't swing. I was trying to do that, and if it's there, put a good swing on it."
St. Louis advances to its second World Series in three years thanks in large part to the bat of its young catcher. Molina tallied eight hits, two homers and six RBIs in the series.
The Cardinals won their 17th pennant in franchise history by gutting out a difficult series against the NL's best regular-season team. They became the first Major League team since 1975 to win a series after losing Game 6 on the road.
Teams are not supposed to recover from that blow. Then again, 83-win teams like the Cardinals aren't supposed to go to the World Series -- St. Louis will have the second-fewest regular-season wins of any Fall Classic participant in history. Teams with rookie closers aren't supposed to win pennants. And a Cardinals team that gives Carlos Beltran an extra chance to beat it? That never ends well.
Except that it did.
"That's Cardinal baseball," said David Eckstein. "Ronnie [Belliard] came up to me and he said, 'This is the way the Cardinals do it. We don't do anything easy.' We found a way to come through one more time. We're heading on to the World Series, one more chance."
They did it by landing yet another shot to the Mets' bullpen, considered one of the team's greatest strengths and most pronounced advantages entering the series. The St. Louis bullpen, meanwhile, locked down once again.
Randy Flores picked up the victory for a three-up, three-down showing after Jeff Suppan issued a leadoff walk in the eighth.
Suppan did not figure in the decision, but he certainly factored in the victory -- and he was rewarded in another way, with series MVP honors. Following up his Game 7 win in the 2004 NLCS, the right-hander pitched seven-plus brilliant innings, allowing a run on two hits -- and no base hits after the first inning.
His best work came in the sixth, following Chavez's spectacular catch that kept the score 1-1. A walk and a shocking throwing error by Rolen put men on second and third, and Suppan walked Shawn Green intentionally. But with the go-ahead run at third base and two more potential marks looming, Suppan struck out Jose Valentin and got Chavez to fly out.
"Bases loaded right there, and Supp just got that zero," said Albert Pujols. "That game could have been broken open right there -- they could have scored a couple of runs. They have a great bullpen, so it could have been game over. But we got that zero right there, we got some momentum our way. We knew if we could get it to our bullpen, we had a pretty good chance to score a run."
The game remained tied into the ninth, when Rolen battled for his single off Heilman. Molina jumped on a first pitch, and Shea went quiet as the Redbirds led.
The ballpark started rocking again quickly, though. Two quick singles off Wainwright, who has yet to blow a save as the Cards' closer, put the life back in the sold-out stadium. Wainwright struck out pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd looking, and Jose Reyes flied out.
Two down, two on, and Beltran looming on deck. Wainwright went to a 3-2 count to Paul Lo Duca, and the catcher drew the walk. The hardest of hard ways had come to pass.
And Wainwright got it done just the same. A called strike and a foul made it 0-2, and Wainwright ended the game by freezing Beltran with a curveball.
"We did earn that," Wainwright said. "Once we took the lead there, I just couldn't let our team down. It's one of the most special things in my life."
A two-out flurry got New York ahead in its first turn at-bat, but the Cardinals responded with a critical run in the next half-inning. After singles by Edmonds and Molina, Belliard pushed a bunt to the right side that scored Edmonds to tie the game.
Suppan set down the first two Mets on groundouts in the first, but Beltran poked a double down the third-base line to give New York its first baserunner. Carlos Delgado walked, and David Wright dropped a perfectly placed bloop single into shallow right field for a 1-0 Mets lead.
From there, the right-hander was outstanding, not allowing so much as another hit. He was lifted after a leadoff walk to Beltran in the eighth.