Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 19, 2006 - Against All Odds: Molina's 9th-Inning Blast Sends Cards to World Series

Thursday, October 19, 2006 - Game 7 - NLCS vs New York Mets at Shea Stadium - Attendance:  56,357 - Starting Pitchers:  Jeff Suppan vs Oliver Perez

The fact that the Cardinals were still playing this deep into the postseason baffled the vast majority of baseball experts who thought the San Diego Padres would send 'em home after three or four games of the NLDS.  Instead, it would be the Pads losing a third straight postseason showdown with the Cards - three games to one.  In '96 and again in '05, St Louis took care of San Diego in three straight games to advance to a NLCS which they would ultimately lose - first to Atlanta and then Houston.

This time around, San Diego managed to win one game, improving their lifetime postseason record to 1-9 vs the Cardinals.

Meanwhile, the heavily favored New York Mets had eliminated the Redbirds in just five NLCS games back in 2000 - as a wild card team, no less.  This time around, the experts generally anticipated a four game sweep.

But here they were, playing a seventh and deciding game in this season's NLCS - both teams unwittingly conspiring to ice down a red-hot Detroit Tigers team that had eliminated the Oakland Athletics far too quickly in their championship series.  The team that plays the waiting game usually has a tough time in the Fall Classic - as the Tigers would eventually find out.

If the Cardinals were going to advance to the World Series, they would have to win this game on the road - against a team that had already swept a three-game series from St Louis - right here at Shea Stadium, back in August.

Actually, winning road games anywhere was a challenge for the Cardinals in '06,  as their 34-47 record away from home would attest.  When  the Mets scored a first-inning run on a two-out double by Carlos Beltran and a bloop RBI single by David Wright, the challenge got a bit more intense.  However, Cards starter Jeff Suppan dodged a bullet when Shawn Green hit a bullet right at Scott Rolen at third base to minimize the damage.

The Cardinals tied the game in the second-inning off Mets starter Oliver Perez.  A lead-off single by Jim Edmonds and a one-out bloop hit by Yadier Molina put runners on the corners for Ronnie Belliard.  Manager Tony LaRussa - anticipating difficulty scoring runs - called for the squeeze play - and it worked.  Belliard's bunt towards second base scored Edmonds to make it a 1-1 game.

In the third-inning, a lead-off double by David Eckstein went to waste, as Preston Wilson (nephew of Mets icon Mookie Wilson) struck out - then after an intentional walk to Albert Pujols, Juan Encarnacion grounded one to third baseman Wright who started an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.

What happened in the sixth-inning is almost beyond belief.

Still tied at one run apiece, Jim Edmonds drew a one-out walk off a tiring Oliver Perez.  Next up - Scott Rolen hit one deep to left field which seemed to be gone.  But left fielder Endy Chavez somehow caught the ball at the absolute apex of his well-timed leap - not only bringing the ball back, but firing a strike to second baseman Jose Valentin who quickly relayed the ball to first baseman Carlos Delgado - to double up a very shocked Edmonds - while sending the fans into an absolute frenzy.

With all that momentum going for them, the Mets seemed almost certain to take the lead in the bottom half of the sixth.  After a one-out walk to Delgado, Wright hit a ground ball to a distraught Scott Rolen, who hastily threw one into right field - trying to start a double play.  Suddenly, New York had both runners in scoring position.  With first base open, Suppan intentionally walked Green, then got perhaps the biggest strikeout of his career when he fanned Valentin on a nasty slider.  Up next - the heroic Chavez - with a chance to add to his legend with a potential game-winning base hit - instead flew out to center to end the threat.

Mets reliever Chad Bradford (career postseason 0.39 ERA in 23.1 IP) worked a perfect seventh-inning - then Suppan finished up his terrific performance with another scoreless inning in the bottom half.

However, at this point in the game, the prospects for a Cardinal victory seemed remote - to say the least.  During the regular season, the Redbirds only managed to win one game on the road when they were tied after seven innings of play.  Strangely enough, that happened in the second game of the season - when they managed to score a ninth-inning run in Philadelphia, and held on for a 4-3 win.

On the other hand, the Cardinals lost nine times on the road when they were tied up after seven-innings.  Even when they had the lead after seven-innings on the road, the Cardinals still managed to lose five games.  To their credit, they did manage to win two games on the road when they were trailing after seven innings.  Go figure.

So here they were, playing the biggest game of the year - in a 1-1 tie at Shea Stadium after seven-innings of play.  Not exactly their blueprint for success in recent history.

A new Mets reliever - Aaron Heilman - pitched a scoreless eighth-inning - first retiring Eckstein on a ground ball to the first baseman - unassisted - then getting Scott Spiezio on a called third strike.  Heilman wanted no part of Pujols, however - walking him intentionally with two-out and nobody on.  He then struck out Encarnacion to retire the side.  Whether or not that strategy had any impact on what would transpire in the ninth-inning is pure conjecture.

After Suppan walked Beltran to open the bottom of the eighth for the Mets, LaRussa brought in Randy Flores to face the heart of the New York lineup - and he was equal to the task - striking out both Delgado and Wright before inducing Green to ground out to Pujols - unassisted.

On to the ninth-inning.  Heilman struck out Edmonds for out number one.  Rolen then grounded a single to left field, bringing Yadier Molina up to the plate.  Perhaps Heilman thought Yadi would take a pitch or two, to get ahead in the count - but that wasn't what Yadi had in mind.  On a first pitch fastball, Molina lined one deep - and high enough - to clear the wall in left.  Chavez would have needed a trampoline to have a shot at catching this one.

The Cards had a shocking 3-1 lead now - but this game was far from over.

Rookie Adam Wainwright came in for the save - but it wouldn't be easy.  Both Valentin and Chavez singled to start the last of the ninth.  With runners on first and second, pinch hitter Cliff Floyd couldn't pull the trigger on a called strike three.  Jose Reyes then lined out to Edmonds in center for out number two.  Next up - Paul LoDuca - walked to load the bases.

With the season on the line for both teams, the most dangerous postseason hitter the Cardinals have ever encountered - Carlos Beltran - stepped up to the plate.  Three pitches later, he was out on strikes.  The final pitch was a baffling curve ball on the outside corner which completely fooled Carlos - dropping about two feet to finish knee-high.

The Cardinals had survived this crazy game.  On the road.  With a National League championship on the line.  On a home run from what was - at the time - the least likely candidate to go yard.  They were on their way to their second World Series appearance in three years - quite naturally, as huge underdogs.

Of course, this team knew better - and they were about to shock the experts one more time.

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