WORLD SERIES BOUND

WORLD SERIES BOUND

By Mike Fitzpatrick

NEW YORK – No way anybody was catching Yadier Molina’s ninth-inning shot. And by the time it landed beyond the left-field fence, the St. Louis Cardinals were headed to the World Series.

Molina’s tiebreaking homer and another Game 7 gem by Jeff Suppan helped St. Louis overcome Endy Chavez’s astounding grab, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 victory over the New York Mets on Thursday night for the NL championship.

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.

And 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.

Molina, a .216 career hitter with only six home runs during the regular season, drove the first pitch he saw from reliever Aaron Heilman into New York’s bullpen for a 3-1 lead in the ninth.

Chavez, who made one of the most memorable postseason catches just three innings earlier, could only stand and watch at the fence as the Mets’ World Series hopes were dashed.

Scott Rolen, robbed of a homer by Chavez in the sixth, got the St. Louis rally started with a single.

But the Mets, resilient throughout their stirring season, nearly came back in the ninth.

Jose Valentin and Chavez opened the inning with singles before pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd struck out looking.

Jose Reyes lined out to center for the second out, but Paul Lo Duca drew a walk that loaded the bases.

That brought up Beltran, who homered three times in the series after hitting .417 with four home runs for Houston in the 2004 NLCS against St. Louis.

Wainwright, a rookie filling in for injured closer Jason Isringhausen, got ahead in the count immediately and froze Beltran with a breaking ball for strike three.

The Cardinals, with their 17th pennant in hand, charged out of the dugout and mobbed Wainwright in front of the mound.

Suppan won the MVP award 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 in five NLCS starts. In 2004, he outpitched Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS to lead St. Louis over Houston.

With a runner on in the sixth and Rolen coming up, Mets manager Willie Randolph went to the mound for a chat with Oliver Perez, who was 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA this season.

But Randolph, who often talks about how he likes to challenge his young players, stuck with the kid even though a reliever was warming up – and it nearly cost the Mets.

Rolen pulled the next pitch deep to left and Chavez, a defensive whiz starting because Floyd has an injured Achilles’ tendon, raced back to the fence as fast as he could.

In one motion, the 6-foot Chavez jumped with all his might and reached his right arm up and over the 8-foot wall as far as it would stretch. His mouth wide open, he snagged the drive in the tip-top of his glove – the white of the ball showing atop the webbing like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Chavez banged into the padded blue wall, buckling a couple of panels, but landed on his feet and came up firing back into the infield.

Jim Edmonds, who had walked, had already rounded second, so second baseman Valentin relayed to first for a spectacular double play that ended the inning with Albert Pujols and the bewildered Cardinals watching from the top step of the dugout in amazement.A boisterous crowd of 56,357 settled in as the starters matched zeros through the middle innings – until Chavez’s incredible catch left them roaring.

Perez, often leaping over the foul line, pitched the game of his life on only three days’ rest. Picked for an unlikely start in the most crucial situation because of New York’s depleted staff, he gave up one run and four hits in six innings.

Perez won Game 4 in St. Louis and gave the Mets all they could have hoped for Thursday.