NEW YORK – The St. Louis Cardinals completed one of the biggest upsets in postseason history on Thursday night, shooting down the New York Mets in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

The Cardinals won the thriller, 3-1, on the strength of Yadier Molina’s two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning.

Molina’s blast came three innings after Mets leftfielder Endy Chavez robbed Scott Rolen of what would have been a tiebreaking two-run homer in the sixth.

Rolen, who had a frustrating series but a satisfying outcome, was on base for Molina’s homer. The former Phillie had reached base with a single, capping off a nine-pitch at-bat in which he started in an 0-2 hole.

The Cardinals, who won just 83 games in the regular season, will head to their 17th World Series on Saturday night in Detroit. The 97-win Mets will be watching on television.

St. Louis brings a .516 regular-season winning percentage to the World Series, the second-lowest ever. The 1973 Mets, who lost to Oakland, had a .509 regular-season winning percentage. The 1987 Twins (.525) had the lowest regular-season winning percentage of any World Series champion.

The starting pitching by St. Louis’ Jeff Suppan and New York’s Oliver Perez was exceptional, but the story of the game, up until Molina’s homer, was the home-run-saving catch that Chavez made on Rolen.

Perez walked Jim Edmonds with one out, prompting manager Willie Randolph to visit the mound. What happened next was breathtaking. Rolen lined the first pitch Perez threw deep to left. It looked like a two-run homer.

The huge crowd at Shea Stadium fell silent and Chavez gave chase. Without breaking stride, he got to the wall and jumped. He extended his right arm high above the wall and snagged the ball in the web of his glove. The crowd erupted. Free snow cones for everyone. Chavez wasn’t done, though. He stuck the landing and threw to the infield to double up Edmonds for the third out.

Perez exited after the sixth. Chad Bradford and Aaron Heilman held the Cardinals in check in the seventh and eighth before Heilman allowed the crushing, first-pitch homer by Molina.

Suppan pitched seven innings and allowed just one run. Randy Flores got three outs in the eighth, all with a runner on base. Adam Wainwright saved it in the ninth, but not before the Mets loaded the bases. Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran looking to end the game, and the Mets’ season.

Chavez’s catch will be talked about and replayed for years. It immediately stirred memories of two other famous postseason catches, both of which happened in New York.

In Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Willie Mays made arguably the most famous catch ever when he ran down Vic Wertz’s blast to deep center at the Polo Grounds and hauled it in with his back to home plate.

Mays’ Giants swept that Series.

A year later, in Game 7 of the World Series, 23-year-old Johnny Podres beat the Yankees, 2-0, for the Dodgers’ only World Series championship in Brooklyn. The Yankees’ best chance of scoring off Podres was thwarted in the sixth inning when Sandy Amoros made a running catch on Yogi Berra in the left-field corner at Yankee Stadium. Amoros finished the play by doubling up Gil McDougald at first base.

Chavez’s catch ranks right with those two.

The Cardinals have played in the last two Game 7s in the league’s championship series. Two years ago, they beat Houston.

The winning pitcher in that game? Suppan. He outpitched Roger Clemens.

On Thursday night, his opponent was far less accomplished than Clemens. Perez spent time in the minor leagues this season. He went 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA in 15 starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates, then was sent to triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 1-3 with a 5.63 ERA in six starts before coming to the Mets in a July trade.

With the Mets, Perez wasn’t much better. He was 1-3 with a 6.38 ERA in seven starts. Overall, he went 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA in the regular season. Statistically, he is the worst pitcher to ever start a postseason Game 7.

But in 2004, Perez led the National League with 10.97 strikeouts per nine innings. He has dynamic stuff, highlighted by a 95-m.p.h. fastball.

Harnessing that stuff and commanding his pitches has been the problem. Under Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, Perez made enough strides in that area to enable manager Randolph to give him the Game 4 start in this series. Perez kept his team in the game for 52/3 innings and the bats did the rest in a 12-5 win.

Perez pitched on three days’ rest Thursday night, but his stuff didn’t suffer in the early innings. The Cardinals had several threats, but Perez was able to strand a runner in scoring position in four of the first five innings.

The Cardinals got a run off him in the second, when singles by Edmonds and Molina were followed by Ronnie Belliard’s safety-squeeze bunt.

The bunt tied the game at 1-1 after the Mets had struck for an early lead on David Wright’s RBI single in the first inning.

After Wright’s single, Suppan retired seven in a row. He allowed three baserunners in the fourth, but pitched around the danger spot before setting down the side in order in the fifth.

Suppan’s biggest challenge came in the bottom of the sixth, moments after Chavez’s dramatic catch. With one out, the Mets loaded the bases on a walk, an error by Rolen, and an intentional walk. Suppan remained cool and retired Jose Valentin and Chavez to keep the game tied entering the seventh.



(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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NLCS

AP-NY-10-20-06 0003EDT


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