The St. Louis Cardinals are going to the World Series to represent the National League against the Detroit Tigers by virtue of a 3-1 victory over the Mets. Before the rematch of that fabled 1968 Fall Classic begins Saturday night at Comerica Park, it is time to truly appreciate what just happened Thursday under a drizzly October sky in the Big Apple.
Could you have written a better script?
Maybe Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World" that won the pennant for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1951 was a better script, only because it was a last at-bat homer against the rival Dodgers in a time when "walk-off" was not a word and a special best-of-three playoff was required to decide who played the Yankees. Maybe Sid Bream sliding under the tag on Francisco Cabrera's pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth at Atlanta in 1992 was a better script, a Game 7 against Pittsburgh decided on a scoring play.
There was Aaron Boone's walk-off blast for the Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the 2003 American League Championship Series -- a crushing blow to rival Red Sox fans who then savored revenge one year later with the perfect comeback. And who can forget Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, when the Mets scored three in the top of the 15th at Houston and then held on for dear life as the Astros scored two but lost, 7-6?
Years from now, the finish of the 2006 NLCS will be spoken about with a similar sparkle in the eye, especially if you are a Cardinals fan. This one even topped the 2004 pennant that was won when the Redbirds beat Roger Clemens and Houston in Game 7 at Busch. That is because of all of the elements of battle that led up to the last game and the last inning of a series that had endured rainouts in both cities and so much give-and-take and illogical events (i.e. John Maine beating Chris Carpenter in Game 6). Maybe it wasn't the best series in history, but it certainly can be remembered as one of the most dramatic pennant-winning finishes, having wrapped up with a save situation second to none.
Top of the ninth
Jose Molina was watching the game at home in Puerto Rico. Bengie Molina was watching it with his family in Arizona. They had each won a World Series in 2002 as catchers for the Angels. Now, their kid brother Yadier, 24, was batting against Mets reliever Aaron Heilman with one out of a long-tied 1-1 game.
"When I was a kid playing with my brothers, this is what I wanted," Yadier said. "They got their rings and now I have another chance, too."
He helped make that possible on the first pitch he saw. Scott Rolen had just singled, a breakthrough of sorts, considering the way Endy Chavez had robbed him of a homer on one of the best defensive plays in NLCS history. Now Molina, a guy who had struggled at the plate this season, was batting right behind Rolen because manager Tony La Russa had the foresight to bump him up one spot in the order for this game.
Heilman, a right-hander who stayed in the game after the eighth because of so many Cardinals righties, threw an 85-mph changeup middle-in. Molina turned on it and pulled it deep to left. Would Chavez somehow catch this one, too?
"I didn't think it was a home run, to tell you the truth," Rolen said of his view leading off first. "I knew it was deep. You gauge whether you see [Chavez's] back or not, and he was kind of gliding to the ball a little bit. So I thought he was going to catch it. I thought it was deep enough for me to tag up and go to second base, and hopefully the next batter can knock me in."
It was deep enough. Mike Shannon was saying the customary, "Get up, baby, get up!" to a listening Redbird Nation, and it got up enough.
"I was so happy. I was praying, thanking God for giving me the opportunity to hit that ball," Molina said. "It's a great feeling to hit a home run to go to the World Series. I had a bad season this year, but I know I can hit. I just proved it."
Ronnie Belliard and John Rodriguez grounded out to end the inning. It was 3-1 Cardinals, and it would be up to Wainwright once again to prove himself.
Bottom of the ninth
Jose Valentin and Chavez led off with singles, and Shea Stadium was just crazy. Given the complexion of this series, a Mets comeback victory here was half-expected.
"Suddenly everyone's on pins and needles," Wainwright said. "I just wanted to make it as fun as possible. Seriously, I should never have gotten us into that situation."
The situation would get worse for the Cardinals.
Cliff Floyd strode to the plate, and here was another possible Kirk Gibson moment, with a gimpy pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a big game. Once again, that moment came and went. Wainwright stayed ahead in the count and got Floyd looking on the sixth pitch for strike three.
Jose Reyes was next, the man whose leadoff homer in Game 6 had been the key blow. He was 0-for-4 in this one, so he was due. But Wainwright got him on a line drive to Jim Edmonds in center. The Cardinals were one out away from the World Series.
"We were both warming up in the bullpen," Cards reliever Josh Kinney said of himself and Tyler Johnson. "Usually in the ninth, when the phone rings and they tell you to 'get hot,' you know you might be in the game, so you're just trying to focus. But you knew that it was an unbelievable situation."
Wainwright then walked Paul Lo Duca, loading the bases. Now it was none other than Beltran, who had hit an unfathomable seven homers against the Cardinals over two NLCS, the first one in 2004 with Houston.
"If he throws him a fastball there, I'd kill him," Hanser said of Wainwright.
He first threw a changeup for a called strike, then a curve middle-in which was fouled off for an 0-2 count. Then came another curve on the outside corner. The Cardinals win the pennant.
"The guy threw an unhittable pitch," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said.
"For Wainwright to get his composure to stop that momentum, that was huge by him," Kinney said. "We were loose, and the skipper knew it. But I'm glad we weren't needed. It doesn't get any better than that. Beltran is so clutch against us. It's about time we got him. That's not taking anything away from him, because he's a great hitter."
The Barefoot Bubbly continued to flow. In the trainer's room, Cardinals gathered and mocked the "Jo-se! Jose-Jose!" chant that Mets fans had yelled throughout the series for speedy sparkplug Reyes. They unleashed a sea of emotion. It was a ninth inning that would do that to you, one survivor now ready for the Tigers.
"That ninth inning ... what a classic ninth for a classic game," La Russa said.
You probably couldn't have written a better script, as a Cardinals fan. The season will go on to Detroit, and many years from now people will talk about the time Molina homered and Wainwright got Beltran looking. It really was a classic finish.