NEW YORK - The first long drive to left field wound up in the webbing of Endy Chavez’s glove as he crashed against the wall.
The second one sailed clear over his head.
And that’s what sent Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series.
Molina’s tiebreaking homer in the ninth inning and another Game 7 gem by Jeff Suppan helped St. Louis overcome Chavez’s astounding grab, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 victory over the New York Mets on a rainy Thursday night for the NL championship.
“I think this is the best team — and we proved it,” Molina said.
Adam Wainwright wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth, striking out St. Louis nemesis Carlos Beltran to end it and leaving a stunned crowd in deflated silence just moments after it had Shea Stadium shaking.
With that, the Cardinals earned their second pennant in three years and a date with the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night in Game 1 of the World Series.
Hey Motown, here come the Cards.
“I’m just so happy for Yadier. What a big hit for us,” slugger Albert Pujols said.
A .216 hitter with only six home runs during the regular season, Molina drove the first pitch he saw from reliever Aaron Heilman into New York’s bullpen for a 3-1 lead in the ninth.
“I just left it up,” Heilman said. “I was just trying to throw it down and away. Instead it stayed right over the middle of the plate.”
Chavez, who made one of the most memorable catches in postseason history just three innings earlier, could only stand and watch at the fence as the Mets’ title hopes were dashed.
“Everybody said I don’t hit, and I proved them wrong,” said Molina, a standout defensive catcher.
Scott Rolen, robbed of a homer by Chavez in the sixth, started the St. Louis rally with a single.
But the Mets, resilient throughout their stirring season, nearly came back in the ninth.
Jose Valentin and Chavez singled before pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd struck out looking. Jose Reyes lined to center for the second out, and Paul Lo Duca drew a walk that loaded the bases.
Wainwright, a rookie filling in for injured closer Jason Isringhausen, got ahead in the count immediately and froze Beltran with a curveball for strike three.
“I can’t let my team down right there,” said Wainwright, who has three saves in the postseason. “Our team deserves it. We battled so hard in the playoffs.”
The Cardinals, with their 17th pennant in hand, charged out of the dugout and mobbed Wainwright in front of the mound.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
During the champagne celebration in their clubhouse, players gathered around several times and chanted “Jo-se, Jose, Jose, Jose,” mocking the popular chant Mets fans crow when Reyes comes to the plate.
St. Louis stumbled down the stretch and won the NL Central with only 83 wins. Many observers gave them little chance against the Mets, who tied the crosstown Yankees for the best regular-season record in baseball at 97-65.
“I don’t think anyone expected, especially late in the season, that the St. Louis Cardinals would be in the World Series,” Rolen said.
Suppan, who beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS, took home the MVP award this time for two outstanding starts. He limited the Mets to one run and five hits in 15 innings, and once again was at his best in a big game.
Suppan, who won Game 3, is 106-101 lifetime, but 2-1 with a 1.69 ERA in five NLCS starts. He pitched into the eighth inning Thursday and allowed only two hits — none after the first.
“We never gave up. We always believed in ourselves,” Suppan said.
The Cardinals, seeking their first World Series title since 1982, ended a long postseason streak by winning Game 7 on the road after dropping Game 6.
The previous 11 home teams that won Game 6 of an LCS or World Series to stave off elimination also won Game 7. The last road team to win a seventh game after losing Game 6 was Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine at Boston in the 1975 World Series.
Randy Flores worked a scoreless eighth for the win as the Cardinals’ young bullpen came through again.
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