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October 20 2006

One of the things that astounds me about baseball is how often my immediate reaction after a game is to think the game I just watched was the best I've ever seen.  Reliably, however, upon reflection, other finishes and heroics creep back into mind.  It wasn't.  It couldn't be.  They couldn't all be.  It doesn't take long before the-best-I've-ever-seen turns into the-best-I've-seen-in-a-while into wow-what-a-game-that-was.

Wow.  What a game that was.

The St Louis Cardinals will face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  The Cardinals advance thanks to a 3-1 win over the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS, a magnificent game that featured brilliant pitching, a ninth-inning home run and truly one of the greatest catches in a huge spot that you'll ever see.  Including the post-season, the Cards and the Mets had combined to play 342 games this season.  For the last four batters the Mets sent to the plate last night, either team could have won the game on every pitch.  And the difference between winning and losing was going home heartbroken and going to the World Series.

Virtually everyone expected Mets starter Oliver Perez to get blown out and virtually everyone was wrong.  Perez and Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan were both outstanding, combining to allow just six hits and two runs over 13 innings.

Both teams got a run early.  Carlos Beltran hit a two-out double in the bottom of the first inning and Delgado followed with a walk.  David Wright was next and would drive in the only run the Mets would score on the night with a single to right that put them up 1-0.  Shawn Green was next and his at-bat with runners on first and third with one down looks bigger now with the benefit of hindsight.  He lined to third to end the inning.

The Cardinals came back in the top of the second.  Jim Edmonds and Yadier Molina sandwiched singles around a Scott Rolen fly out, putting runners on first and third with one down.  Edmonds scored on a squeeze by Ronnie Belliard to tie the game at 1-1 and Suppan, who homered earlier in the series, struck out to end the inning.

The game sailed along from there.  The Cardinals put runners on first and second with one out in the third, but Juan Encarnacion grounded into a double-play that ended the inning.  Perez got into trouble in the top of the fifth, but got out of it.  A single and a hit by pitch put Cardinal runners on first and second with one out, put Perez struck out Preston Wilson for the second out of the frame.  With action in the Mets pen, the lefty Perez stayed on to face the monster righty Pujols and got him to pop to short to end the inning.

In the top of the sixth, Edmonds drew a one-out walk to bring a slumping Scott Rolen to the plate.  Rolen hit a laser to left and Endy Chavez made an unbelievable leaping catch, rising above the fence and snow-coning the ball.  The ball was hit on a line, so Chavez had to time it perfectly.  He did.  Edmonds was doubled off of first to end the inning.

The Mets put runners on first and second with two down for Chavez in the fourth, but he flew out to center to end the inning.  In the sixth, Delgado walked with one out and Scott Rolen threw a ball hit by Wright into the stands, putting runners at second and third with one out.  Suppan walked Shawn Green intentionally to load the bases and then got out of the mess.  He struck out Jose Valentin and got Chavez to fly out again to center.  Suppan's strikeout of Valentin was huge and unexpected  -- he struck out just 104 in 190 innings this year.

Suppan allowed just two hits in the seven innings he pitched, both of which came in the first inning.  He walked five.  Perez allowed just four hits, two of which came in the top of the second when the Cards scored their first run.

Suppan started the bottom of the eighth and walked the switch-hitter Beltran to start the inning.  With Tyler Johnson having thrown 22 pitches in Game 6, La Russa called on the lefty Randy Flores to pitch to Carlos Delgado.  Flores struck out Delgado, stayed in to face the righty Wright and struck him out as well, and got Shawn Green to ground out to end the inning.

Righty Aaron Heilman pitched the top of the ninth for the Mets after doing a nice job in the top of the eighth.  His return was slightly curious given that lefty Jim Edmonds was leading off the Cards and the Mets had lefties Feliciano and Wagner available in the pen.  Edmonds had two righties behind him, however, and Heilman turned out not to have a problem with Edmonds, striking him out on four pitches for the first out of the inning.  Scott Rolen followed with a huge at-bat.  He got down 0-2 before working the count full in an at-bat that featured four foul balls.  On the ninth pitch of the at-bat he laced a single into left.  Yadier Molina was next and he hit the first pitch he saw from Heilman out of the yard, putting the Cards up 3-1.  Belliard and pinch-hitter John Rodriguez went down to end the inning. 

Heilman had pitched an inning in Game 6 but had to throw just 12 pitches.  He wound up throwing 38 last night.  With their huge lead in the NL East, the Mets didn't call on Heilman to throw more than 30 pitches once in August or September.  He did it twice during the post-season.  Last night and in Game 3, when he threw 33 pitches.  He did throw 30 or more pitches ten times during the regular season, but in each of those ten games he had not appeared the previous day.

The Mets did not go quietly with the bottom of their order due to bat in the ninth.  Adam Wainwright relieved the lefty Flores and Valentin greeted him with a single.  Chavez followed with another single that sent Valentin to second with nobody out.  Cliff Floyd pinch-hit for Heilman and struck out looking at a 2-2 pitch.  Reyes hit a line drive to center for the second out.  Paul LoDuca drew a walk that loaded the bases with two down, but Beltran struck out to end the game.

Eckstein was 1-for-3 and hit .231 in the series. 

Preston Wilson was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and left three men on base. 

Pujols 0-for-2 and walked twice, he now has one RBI in his last nine games heading into the World Series.

Cleanup hitter Juan Encarnacion was 0-for-4 and left four men on base.  He hit .182 in the series.

Edmonds was 1-for-3 with a walk. 

Rolen 1-for-4 with a big hit and a home run that wasn't.  He hit just .238 in the series and made a big error in Game 7.

Molina had the biggest hit of his lifetime.  He was 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBI.  He hit .348 in the series.

Belliard was 1-for-3 with an RBI out of the eight-hole.

For the Mets, Reyes was 0-for-5 and hit .281 in the series.  LoDuca was 0-for-4 (.207).

Beltran was 1-for-3 with a walk. 

Delgado was 0-for-1 and walked three times in front of the slumping David Wright.  Wright was 1-for-4 with a strikeout and hit just .160 in the NLCS.

Shawn Green was 0-for-3 and left four men on base.

Jose Valentin was 1-for-3.

Endy Chavez was 1-for-4 and left five men on base.  He hit .185 in the series.

The World Series starts tomorrow night in Detroit.

In the Arizona Fall League, the Saguaros improved to 5-4 with a 5-0 win over the Grand Canyon Rafters.  The good news is that Peoria finally got some good pitching, the bad news is that it mostly came from Yankees' prospects.  Jaramillo continues to get it done with the bat, he was 1-for-3 with a double and two walks.

Johan Santana is Baseball America's Player of the Year, making it unlikely the award will go to Ryan Howard.

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