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GAME 7s do funny things to people, not the least of which may be causing an identity crisis. In 1926 Babe Ruth made the last out of the World Series trying to steal second base, handing the championship to the Cardinals. Who did he think he was, Ty Cobb?
Now fast-forward to 2006, as Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina rounds the bases in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the National League Championship Series. He has just gone deep on the first pitch from Mets reliever Aaron Heilman to give St. Louis a 3-1 lead. If you ask him, he's liable to tell you his name is Albert Pujols and not, in fact, Yadier Molina, a man for whom the phrase "light-hitting catcher" was invented. As it is, he is having a hard enough time remembering how to put one foot in front of the other.
"I was running, but I couldn't feel my feet," said Molina.
While he will never be confused with Pujols, Molina did outhomer (by a margin of two to one) and outproduce (six RBIs to one) the best hitter in baseball during this NLCS. Molina batted .216 with only six home runs in 417 at bats during the regular season, but his postseason hot streak (including a .308 batting average in the Division Series victory over San Diego) prompted Tony La Russa to move him up to seventh in the lineup for Game 7. It would be one of the longtime skipper's better decisions during a series in which he displayed vintage form.
The seeds of the Cardinals' NLCS victory--and the beginning of the answer to the all-important question of why Billy Wagner was not in the game instead of Heilman--were sown early in the series when St. Louis stole Game 2 at Shea Stadium. The Mets had taken the opener 2-0 behind seven shutout innings from Tom Glavine and a two-run home run from certified Cardinals killer Carlos Beltran. After a rainout that allowed St. Louis to move up reigning Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter to start on full rest in Game 2, the Cardinals nonetheless found themselves down 6-4 in the seventh inning and seemingly at the mercy of the best bullpen in the National League. But Scott Spiezio tied the game with a two-RBI triple to right off Shawn Green's glove. Heading into the bottom of the eighth, La Russa made a prescient move: subbing So Taguchi for Chris Duncan in leftfield. La Russa knew the Mets would go to Wagner, the lefthanded, flamethrowing closer, for the top of the ninth. With the lefthanded Duncan due to lead off the ninth inning, bringing in Taguchi served the dual purpose of upgrading the defense and putting up a righthander against Wagner.
Taguchi, who would end up a perfect 3 for 3 off the bench in the series, battled Wagner for eight pitches before giving the Cardinals the lead with a booming home run to leftfield, a blast that would reverberate into the final inning of the series' final game. "Who expected that I would hit a home run? Nobody, [not] even me," said Taguchi. St. Louis added two more runs for the 9-6 victory that evened the series. Though it was the first breakdown by New York's vaunted pen in a while--the Mets had not lost after leading in the seventh inning since Aug. 1--it would not be the last.
"Going back over the postseasons I've been in, it's maybe the best comeback on a club that I've been around," said La Russa, who has led 12 teams to the postseason during his nearly three decades of managing.
The Gotham versus Gateway series headed to St. Louis for Game 3, where the Cardinals had the pitching matchup in their favor once again, with the battle-tested Jeff Suppan going against fringe veteran Steve Trachsel. Suppan blanked the Mets for eight innings on three hits and a lone walk. He also sparked his club at the plate when, in the second inning, he connected off Trachsel for only the second home run of his career. "It ran into my bat," said Suppan, whose previous dinger was also against Trachsel. His homer gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead and--along with Preston Wilson's line drive off Trachsel's thigh--led to the Mets' starter's ouster one batter later. The Cardinals cruised to a 5-0 victory.
The Mets' bats finally awakened in Game 4 as New York scored two runs off rookie Anthony Reyes after four innings, then teed off on St. Louis's heretofore stellar bullpen in a 12-5 rout. Tied at two games apiece, the series became a best-of-three with the final two games at Shea, making Game 5 as close to a must-win as the Cardinals could face without being on the edge of elimination.