Molina's heroics give Cardinals an unlikely pennant

With unlikely heroes all around, Yadier Molina emerged as the leader in lifting the Cardinals to the National League pennant.

Originally Published: October 19, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It was Game 7 Night in the third week of October. So this was how it was supposed to work.

If Jeff Suppan could be a modern-day Bob Gibson, why couldn't Oliver Perez pitch like Sandy Koufax for one electrifying Game 7 evening?

Look Back at Game 7;
Look Ahead at the World Series
On Mike & Mike, Peter Gammons recaps NLCS Game 7 and says the Cardinals are beat up heading into the World Series against the Tigers.
To listen, click here.Insider

On Mike & Mike, Steve Phillips second-guesses Willie Randolph's decision not to bunt in the ninth inning -- and picks the Tigers to beat the Cards in five games.
To listen, click here.Insider

If Endy Chavez could make a play out of the Sandy Amoros scrapbook, why couldn't a .216-hitting catcher be Bill Mazeroski for one night?

It was Game 7 Night in the third week of October. So it was a night when unlikely heroes materialized out of the drizzly mist to pound out the heart-thumping plot line of a postseason classic.

And in the end -- once Yadier Molina had finished floating around the bases and closer-in-training Adam Wainwright had finished pulling off his James Bond escape act from a bases-loaded mess he'll never forget -- an unlikely champion celebrated a 3-1 triumph on a rainy baseball field a thousand miles from home.

Your St. Louis Cardinals aren't exactly your normal, everyday National League champs. But they're heading for the World Series anyway, just three weeks after an end-of-season freefall that almost etched their name in a whole different history book.

"It's an improbable championship when you win 83 games," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa admitted after the epic victory that sent his team jetting off to its second World Series in three years. "But all I could think about, coming to the park, was that old saying: 'When you get to 90 wins, that's when you know you're a good team.' Well, this was No. 90 tonight. So I guess now we're good."

His team won fewer games than the Phillies. It won fewer games than the Blue Jays. It won fewer games than nine other teams that won't be showing up on any World Series flat screens near you over the next week and a half.

But April through September -- especially the last two weeks of September -- don't matter now. If October, as presently constructed, is a month made for reincarnation, what more perfect World Series matchup could you ask for than a team that almost blew an 8½-game lead over the Astros with 12 to play (the Cardinals) versus a team that went 19-31 over its last 50 games (the Tigers)?

Yadier Molina
Bill Kostroun/AP PhotoYadier Molina's two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 7 lifted the Cardinals into the World Series.
We can contemplate the meaning of that matchup some other time, though. This is a time to contemplate a Game 7 for the ages, a masterpiece of a baseball game that welled up practically out of nowhere.

As it roared along, knots forming in every stomach, even the men in the middle of it were aware of just what this was they were a part of.

This was one spine-tingling evening they were spending on the only occupied baseball field in America. And these men knew a baseball jewel when they saw one.

"That was one great baseball game," La Russa said. "And for it to happen in a Game 7, even better."

"What a game," Cardinals backup catcher Gary Bennett said. "Unbelievable. Even just to watch it and not play in it was unbelievable. I couldn't sit still. I was pacing the dugout, pacing the tunnel, pacing all over the place. This place was fired up, man. What a game. The pitching. The plays that got made. Guys getting into jams. Guys getting out of jams. What a game, man. I don't know any other way to put it."

It was so loud and so intense for so long, these men thought their hearts were going to explode.

Outside the Lines
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One of the central figures in this drama, Scott Rolen, talked of how he had to force himself to gaze up into the sky, take a look around the stands, "just to try to back off a little bit, emotionally."

The evening's biggest hero, Molina, sounded like a therapist when he recounted how he helped guide Wainwright through the most pressurized crisis of his brief life as a closer.

"I kept talking to him, every pitch," Molina said. "Just saying, 'Relax. Stay back. Keep the ball down. Relax.'"

Yeah, right. Relax. How do you relax when 56,000 paying customers are standing, nonstop, for 3½ hours, waving their little white rally towels until they all need wrist surgery and screaming so loud, they were drowning out the 757s rumbling overhead toward LaGuardia Airport?

How do you relax when Oliver Perez -- OK, we can all sing this together: The Worst Game 7 Starter Of All Time -- comes sprinting out of the dugout and launches nine pitches over 95 miles an hour just in the first inning?

How do you relax when you're Jeff Suppan, pitching your butt off, and what should have been a first inning-ending strikeout is ruled a checked swing, and it leads to a Carlos Beltran double and a David Wright blooper and a run that clicks the Shea Stadium Richter Scale up yet another notch?

How do you relax when the Cardinals answer half an inning later, and that 1-1 tie then hangs up there on the scoreboard for inning after inning, hour after hour?

How do you relax? You relax, said the biggest star on the field, by reminding yourself you're a baseball player, and this is what you do.

"To be honest," Albert Pujols said, "I don't think anybody was nervous. Why would you be nervous? It's a game you dream about playing in. Yeah, it was loud. But we knew it would be tough coming in here and trying to win a game. But playing in games like this, to go to the World Series, it's every little boy's dream."

"To be honest, I don't think anybody was nervous. Why would you be nervous? It's a game you dream about playing in. Yeah, it was loud. But we knew it would be tough coming in here and trying to win a game. But playing in games like this, to go to the World Series, it's every little boy's dream."
-- Albert Pujols

And when you dream, you dream of stepping into the batter's box in the middle of a game like this, centering a first-pitch fastball and whomping it over the left field fence.

What you don't see coming in that dream, though, is to have a guy with a glove go high-jumping into the night, reaching 2 feet beyond that fence and turning your dream into not just one out but a 7-6-3 double play (the old 7-6-3, if you're scoring).

But that's what happened to Rolen in the sixth inning of this game. For about a second and a half, he was a hero. And then Chavez decided to disprove this goofy idea that human beings can't fly -- stealing Rolen's homer, stealing Rolen's moment.

Asked later about that rocket he'd hit, Rolen chuckled and asked back: "Are you talking about that double play I hit into in the sixth inning?"

Asked at yet another point if he ever got to see the replay of that catch, Rolen laughed again.

"Yeah," he said. "I saw it about seven times on the scoreboard between innings. And one thing I noticed was that every time he caught it, it got louder and louder."

And as if things weren't going well enough for him amidst that tumult, Rolen found himself charging a David Wright roller only moments later in the bottom of that inning, losing his grip on the wet baseball and firing it into the seats. Which didn't cause much trouble or anything.

Only a bases-loaded nightmare for Suppan to try to pitch out of.

Which, of course, he then did.

"That was an emotional inning for No. 27," Rolen quipped, referring to himself. "Luckily, No. 37 [Suppan] picked up No. 27."

Yep, with the bases loaded, Suppan whiffed Jose Valentin and got a fly ball out of Chavez. So yet one more zero appeared on that scoreboard. And onward they rumbled, into the ninth, still tied at 1-1.

At that point, because this is October, you began to connect the dots of history …

To The Jack Morris Game (Game 7, 1991 World Series), because that was the first Game 7 of any series to find itself tied after eight innings.

To Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, because that was the last Game 7 played in this park before this one, and that game was tied as late as the seventh inning.

And to Game 7 of the indelible 1975 World Series, because you had to go back all those years to find the last time a home team that had just won Game 6 had then turned around and lost a Game 7. Eleven other home teams had found themselves in that spot in the three decades since -- and all 11 had found a way to win.

But not this home team.

Because Molina -- a guy who hit .216 this season, a guy who hit as many regular-season homers (six) as a fellow who pitches for the Cubs (Carlos Zambrano) -- had one magical swing left in him.

He went to the plate in the top of the ninth, guessing that Mets reliever Aaron Heilman was going to try to fool him with a first-pitch changeup. And he was 100 percent correct.

So Molina spun his hips, nailed that changeup on the screws and sent it hurtling through the soggy Shea skies -- toward nearly the same spot in left field where Rolen had seen his own epic homer stolen out of the ozone.

"I was praying to God," Molina said, "to keep that ball away from Endy Chavez."

But not even Chavez could leap high enough or far enough to keep this ball from landing in the Cardinals' Game 7 pantheon. So Molina was able to rampage around those bases, screaming with joy, because this, he said, "was the greatest feeling I ever felt in my whole life."

It was a home run that fit right into the mixed-up, upside-down bizarro world that erupted in this series. The Cardinals, amazingly, got home runs in this LCS from (A) a pitcher who had hit none all year (Suppan), (B) a backup outfielder who had hit no regular-season homers after June (So Taguchi), (C) a left-handed hitter (Chris Duncan) pinch hitting against a left-handed reliever, even though he'd racked up nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits against left-handers this season, and (D) the plucky little shortstop who hit as many homers in this series as he'd hit in his final 462 at-bats of the season (David Eckstein).

So Taguchi
Kathy Willens/AP PhotoReserve outfielder So Taguchi was a key contributor for the Cardinals in the NLCS.
"You know what?" La Russa said of that fascinating collection of home run heroes. "That's how you win."

That's how you win, all right. Except first, you need to play a bottom of the ninth. And it also fit right in that the closer the Cardinals called on to pitch that bottom of the ninth was a fellow trying to rack up a save that would give him as many in the postseason (three) as he'd saved all season.

And of course, it wouldn't be easy. It couldn't be easy.

Valentin and Chavez had to kick off the bottom of the ninth with two straight singles. And then, after Wainwright had wriggled to within an out of the finish line, he had to walk Paul Lo Duca to load the bases.

Which meant the hitter stalking up there had to be Beltran, the man who had bludgeoned seven October homers against the Cardinals in 14 postseason games -- the most against them in the postseason by any player in history not named Babe Ruth.

Wainwright took a walk behind the mound to soak all this in. He'd been telling himself through the whole month of October that this was just like a thousand backyard playoff games he'd pitched in his head as a kid. Except they weren't this loud.

"In my dream, it was always bases loaded, two out in the ninth," he said. "But I don't think Carlos Beltran was up there. I don't think any guys that talented ever came up there in my dreams."

But Wainwright has proven this month he has a little talent himself. So just like the dream -- only better -- he froze Beltran with an 0-2 curveball. Plate ump Tim Welke pumped his fist. Bedlam was erupting all around him. And Molina was racing toward him at such a high rate of speed, it looked like he might shatter about 92 bones in Wainwright's rib cage.

"Hey, even if he'd tackled me, that would have been fine," Wainwright said. "To be honest, I wouldn't have cared right then if Brian Urlacher had put a hit on me. I was just excited to win. That was one of the top three moments in my life. And hopefully, it will get better. Hopefully, I'll feel that feeling one more time."

This was the 10th Cardinals team in history to win a Game 7. The others, however, featured men named Gibson and Brock and Musial -- names you won't find on the World Series roster of these Cardinals.

But that's OK. Octobers are supposed to follow no scripts. So these St. Louis Cardinals will show up in Detroit and see what miracles they can wrangle up next.

"I tasted the World Series before, in 2004," Pujols said, "and it didn't turn out how we wanted. But here we are again. And I just want another chance. I just want to get one win -- and then we'll see what happens next."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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