From the journeyman starters throwing zeros to the circus catch in left field, from the light-hitting catcher swatting the go-ahead homer in the top of the ninth to the substitute rookie closer escaping a bases-loaded, biggest-slugger-up jam in the bottom half, Thursday's National League Championship Game 7 was a classic.
Every once in a while, if you're a sports fan, you look forward to something and it lives up to its billing. It's what keeps us coming back.
Yadier Molina hit an Aaron Heilman changeup over the left-field fence in the top of the ninth inning, breaking a 1-1 tie that had stood since the second, and the St. Louis Cardinals hung on -- barely -- to beat the New York Mets 3-1 and win their second pennant in three years, their 17th of the modern era.
The Mets threatened in the bottom of the ninth, because this tense, brilliant game wasn't going to end quietly. Against rookie Adam Wainwright, forced into the closer's role because of a season-ending injury to Jason Isringhausen, the Mets quickly got two aboard on singles by Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez.
Rather than sending a lesser hitter up to bunt, Mets manager Willie Randolph called on Cliff Floyd to pinch-hit. Floyd's battling a variety of leg ailments and can barely run. Visions of a double play, but also of Kirk Gibson limping out of a dugout in 1988.
Neither one. Cutting mightily at Strike 1, Floyd eventually struck out looking at a nasty curveball. After Jose Reyes flied out to put the Cardinals one out away, Paul Lo Duca worked a walk. That brought up Carlos Beltran, who was murder on the Cardinals in 2004 as a Houston Astro but hadn't been too hard on them this time around, 7-for-22 with two home runs.
Beltran struck out looking at the same wicked curve that got Floyd, and the Cardinals were league champions, headed to Detroit for Game 1 of the World Series against the Tigers Saturday night.
The Cardinals' NLCS win was an even bigger upset than their loss to Houston a year ago. St. Louis almost blew a big division lead in the final weeks of the season, barely finished over .500 and looked just about like a team with those credentials. They upset the San Diego Padres in the first round but that was a quick best-of-five and those were the Padres.
These were the Mets, who looked not only like the class of the league all year but like the only team in the league worth watching, the only one that could be mentioned in the same breath with the American League powers.
It looked like the Mets' night early. With the Shea Stadium crowd sounding more like a college football stadium on a rivalry Saturday, Mets starter Oliver Perez ripped through the top of the first, surviving a two-base error by first baseman Carlos Delgado on Albert Pujols' popup. In the bottom of the inning the Mets cuffed Jeff Suppan around for a run on a double by Beltran, a walk to Delgado and an RBI single by David Wright.
But the Cardinals pushed one across in the second on singles by Jim Edmonds and Molina and a run-scoring bunt, not really a squeeze play, by Ron Belliard. And then Perez and Suppan locked horns. Suppan didn't give up another hit, though a combination of walks, hit batsmen and one doozy of a throwing error by Scott Rolen created jams in the fourth and sixth innings.
Perez faced two on, one out jams in the third and fifth, but got out of both, inducing Juan Encarnacion to hit into a double play in the third and getting Preston Wilson and Pujols in the fifth. In the sixth he walked Edmonds with one out, then gave up a long drive to left by Rolen.
Chavez went back to the warning track, leaped, reached way above and behind the wall and somehow snared the ball, white showing as he snapped his glove forward. Edmonds was halfway to third and was easily doubled off first.
These words are not doing the catch justice. If the Mets had won, it would have been remembered as one of the greatest of all time. It still might be. Kids my age grew up with the annual rite of Oakland A's outfielder Joe Rudi making a circus catch in the postseason. Chavez's play was better than all of them combined.
But three innings later Molina's shot left nothing to chance, or to Chavez. It sailed well over the wall, and once Wainwright had pitched into and back out of trouble, the Cardinals were the most unlikely World Series team since -- well, since the 2005 Astros, but maybe since the 1997 Cleveland Indians, and maybe even since the '87 Minnesota Twins.
They'll play a Tigers team that will have had six full days off since it clinched the American League pennant Saturday. Common sense says such a long layoff can hurt a club. It messes with hitters' timing, throws pitchers off their routines. Baseball teams are built to play almost every day, and having their only weeklong vacation right before the most important games of the year is a big disruption.
Fortunately for the Detroits, common sense is wrong. Or at least it has been since the current playoff format was first used in 1995. In those 11 years, the team with the longer layoff entering the World Series has won it 10 times. The only exception was the 2000 New York Yankees, who had three days off before they beat the Mets, who had four.
Going back to 1985, when the LCS was stretched from five to seven games and the six-day layoff was first possible, the team with the longer layoff has gone 14-3. Three times the pennant winners had the same number of days off.
So that bit of general history bodes well for the Tigers, but so do the specifics. The Tigers have won mostly with young, fireballing pitchers, exactly the type of player who figures to benefit the most from some time off at the end of a long season.
Justin Verlander, the Tigers' prize rookie, finished the season poorly and hasn't been his dominant midsummer self in the playoffs, though he's won twice. He might be toast for the year, but he also may have just needed a few days. Jeremy Bonderman has pitched well in five of his last six starts. The layoff will likely only make him stronger.
The Cardinals, for all their well-earned joy in New York Thursday, will struggle to find starting pitchers. Their best two, Suppan and Chris Carpenter, won't be ready for Game 1. Carpenter could start Game 2 Sunday on short rest, or he could wait for Game 3, which would set him up for a possible Game 7.
Jeff Weaver could start Game 1 on short rest, but manager Tony La Russa's pregame comments Thursday made it sound like that's not an option. He said it would be a matter of choosing between Anthony Reyes, who struggled in Game 4 against the Mets, or Jason Marquis, who was inactive for the NLCS after a terrible season.
If the Cardinals can solve that puzzle without incurring too much damage, they can give the Tigers a series, because their bullpen is strong and they have Pujols -- nearly shut out by New York -- plus Rolen, who seemed to be swinging the bat well despite his sore shoulder Thursday, and a cast of potential unlikely heroes like Yadier Molina. Of course, every team has that.
The Tigers match up as the clear favorite over the Cards. They have those starters -- Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson are the other two -- and their own strong bullpen. Magglio Ordonez turned back into a power hitter in September, and Carlos Guillen quietly had a monster year.
Other than catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who's on the downside of his career, the Tigers don't have the transcendent stars the Cardinals and Mets both boast. But they have guys all down the lineup who are dangerous. Marcus Thames and Craig Monroe and Brandon Inge and even Placido Polanco, a former Cardinal who's been playing inspired ball since returning from a separated shoulder at the end of the year. Even Rodriguez, not what he once was, can still inflict damage.
The Tigers are a complete team while the Cardinals are a mutant .500 club surviving on magic potions and sleight of hand. Then again, the same was true of the Mets and Cardinals a week ago and look what happened.
The 2006 World Series will have plenty to live up to. These franchises have met twice before, though most of the players' parents weren't even born the first time and only Rogers and Detroit closer Todd Jones were alive the second. They were both humdingers, seven-game series that featured big comebacks by the winners, the Cardinals in 1934, the Tigers in 1968.
But what the '06 Series will really have to live up to is the '06 NLCS, which finished with a Game 7 that lived up to anything anyone could have expected.
The prediction: Tigers in six.
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NFL Week 7 [PERMALINK]
The week in sentences, two per game. Winners in chapeaus. Also, by popular demand, the picks of my son, Buster, coin-flippinest 3-year-old on two legs and co-leader in the Panel o' Experts standings, who takes all favorites of six points or more and flips for the other games.
Early Sunday games
CAROLINA (4-2) at Cincinnati (3-2): The Panthers defensive front is just too much for a banged-up Bengals offensive line. Cincinnati probably needs this one more, but I don't think that'll be enough.
Buster's pick: Cincinnati (coin)
SAN DIEGO (4-1) at Kansas City (2-3): If the Chargers open up their offense like they did against the 49ers, they're a hell of a team. If they go back to that dumb, conservative Martyball, they're only pretty good, but still better than the Chiefs.
Buster's pick: San Diego (coin)
PITTSBURGH (2-3) at Atlanta (3-2): Buster's could have a tough week, because four games, including this one, have a spread of five or five and a half points. His coin says Atlanta, but I think the Falcons and Steelers are both on steep grades, going in opposite directions.
Buster's pick: Atlanta (coin)
PHILADELPHIA (4-2) at Tampa Bay (1-4): The New Orleans Saints, idle this week, look pretty legit, but the Eagles still had to play pretty badly to lose a close one to them last week. Tampa got its first win last week, but will be hard-pressed to repeat that with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski facing the Eagles' confusing schemes.
Buster's pick: Philadelphia (coin)
NEW ENGLAND (4-1) at Buffalo (2-4): OK, I need to pick a home team. But these teams also seem to be moving in opposite directions since the Bills gave the Pats a scare on the road in Week 1.
Buster's pick: Buffalo (coin)
JACKSONVILLE (3-2) at Houston (1-4): The Texans got hammered by their in-state "rivals," the Cowboys, last week. That's not a good thing, because the Cowboys really aren't all that good.
Buster's pick: Jacksonville (9.5-point favorites)
Green Bay (1-4) at MIAMI (1-5): Every year there's a team or two like Miami, where I think they're going to be good, but then when they stink I look back and say, "I really should have seen the signs," and I vow to remember to look for those signs the next year, and the next year comes along and the day before I start thinking about my NFL preview, there's a little popping sound behind my left eye, and it's the sound of my memory of those signs disappearing forever, and this is also true in the reverse, that is if you substitute the words "stink" for "be good" and "they're good" for "they stink" way back up at the start of this sentence, for example the Saints. Then again, I'm not taking the Packers on the road, so I'm finally taking a home team.
Buster's pick: Green Bay (coin)
Detroit (1-5) at N.Y. JETS (3-3): And another. I don't think the surprising Jets are going to stay in the playoff hunt, but I'm not buying that the Lions, following an inspiring victory over the Bills, have arrived.
Buster's pick: N.Y. Jets (coin)
Sunday late games
Denver (4-1) at CLEVELAND (1-4): What the Heck Pick of the week.
Buster's pick: Cleveland (coin)
Washington (2-4) at INDIANAPOLIS (5-0): The Colts aren't as good as 5-0 and Washington isn't as bad as 2-4, But the Colts are better than Washington. If Washington decides to actually use Clinton Portis to do what he's being paid to do, it can make hay against a terrible Indy run defense, but probably not enough hay.
Buster's pick: Indianapolis (9-point favorites)
Minnesota (3-2) at SEATTLE (4-1): This could be kind of a trap game for the Seahawks because the Vikings, with their so-so offense, have been playing terrific defense, and the Seahawks are coming off a crazy, last-second divisional road win. But boy, the 'Hawks are tough at home, 23-3 over the past five years, and undefeated since Week 13 of 2004.
Buster's pick: Seattle (coin)
Arizona (1-5) at OAKLAND (0-5): I was going to say something sarcastic about how I'm surprised this game isn't in prime time, but after I mocked last week's prime-time schedule the Cardinals went out and almost beat the Bears in one of the most entertaining games in years. The Cardinals let down and the Raiders win their first, somehow.
Buster's pick: Oakland (coin)
Monday night game
N.Y. GIANTS (3-2) at Dallas (3-2): The Giants' strong defensive front and weak secondary are perfect for a quarterback who makes good decisions, gets rid of the ball quickly and has a strong and accurate arm. Oh.
Buster's pick: Dallas (coin)
Season record: 51-36
Last week: 9-4
What the Heck Picks: 0-6
Total points What the Heck Picks have lost by in the past two weeks: 2
Previous column: The unlikely heroes
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