By now you’re probably aware because it’s been all over the Cardinals’ corner of the internet (including here - please read Heather’s wonderful column), but yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the Cardinals’ Game 7 win over the New York Mets in the 2006 NLCS, which paved the way for their first championship in many of our cognizant lifetimes. (I was alive but have zero memories of 1982.) Reveling in a great moment or championship from a decade ago while our team currently sits at home looks like desperate nostalgia, but this game was important and deserving of all of the trips to way back when because this was the greatest Cardinals game many of us have ever seen.
For starters, it was a Game 7 with the stakes being a trip to the World Series so that right there eliminates any game from April through September from upstaging it simply for the circumstances alone. But even ignoring the stage for a moment, this game holds up. There was left fielder Endy Chavez making arguably the greatest postseason catch when he robbed Scott Rolen of a clear home run with a snow cone grab and prevented what, in the unlikeliest of pitching duels, may have felt like an insurmountable lead. And if that wasn’t offensive enough, Chavez then had the immediate wherewithal to double-up Jim Edmonds at first. The sheer pain of the moment was outdone only by the beauty.
Joe Buck’s most famous call is from Game 6 of the World Series when he paid homage to his father with “We will see you tomorrow night,” following David Freese’s walk-off home run, but his rhetorical “Have you ever seen better?” upon watching the replay of Chavez’s catch is him at his best. The catch was so unforgettable that the following year the Mets turned it into a bobblehead. You know you did something special when they’re paying tribute to a play you made on a night that was one of the more painful in the franchise’s history.
That was also the last pitch that Mets’ starter Oliver Perez threw that game. He and Cardinals’ starter Jeff Suppan combined to pitch 13 innings and each allowed only a single run. Now, a Game 7 do-or-die matchup with Suppan and Perez facing off is not exactly stuff dreams are made of and Suppan’s performance has been a bit overblown as the years have passed. He hit a batter, walked five, and only struck out two to finish with a Game Score of just 66. But he also allowed only two hits and pitched out of a bases loaded, one-out jam in the 6th to take a bit of sting off of Chavez’s gem in the top half of the inning.
The 9th inning birthed two legends. First, Yadier Molina hit what ended up being the game-winning two-run home run off Aaron Heilman - a moon ball to left that I was convinced was a casual fly ball when it left his bat.
(Perhaps still dazed by Chavez’s earlier catch, notice at the 00:25 mark how Rolen doesn’t appear to have gone more than a step or two off first base before sure that the ball had indeed left the yard.) This was not the same Yadi who would later turn himself into a hitter. His .595 OPS that season was second worst in the National League for players with at least 450 plate appearances. No one was expecting a home run when he stepped up to the plate, but he ended the night as the only player on either team with more than one hit.
Second, of course, was Adam Wainwright, whose 12-to-6 curveball froze Carlos Beltran to end the game.
Although we might have a truther in our mix.
Not so take: Adam Wainwright hung strike 3 to Carlos Beltran in the 2006 NLCS.— stlCupofJoe (@stlCupofJoe) July 18, 2016
Whatever the case, here’s what we do know: Since 2006, Molina and Wainwright have been worth a combined 70.1 fWAR. No pitcher/catcher tandem in baseball has been better.
It was the stress of that 9th inning which put the game over the edge and that was largely due to the fact that it was Carlos Beltran standing in the batters box with the bases loaded and the chance to win the game. I’ve never been more terrified of a player, and this includes David Ortiz in the 2013 World Series, than I was of Carlos Beltran in the 2006 postseason. A lot of this carried over from 2004 when he had possibly the greatest, albeit brief, postseason run in history. In 56 plate appearances, he hit eight home runs. Total, he slashed .435/.536/1.022. Walking him only dulled the pain slightly as he was likely to steal second, which he did six times. How the Cardinals won the ‘04 NLCS in seven with him on the other side still feels like a mystery.
Beltran wasn’t this scorching hot in the ‘06 postseason - his OPS in the NLCS was only 1.054 - but getting him out in that moment seemed way less likely than not. But then:
I’ve written before how the 2011 World Series Championship assured that the post-2000 Cardinals would be judged correctly by the history books. The 2006 Championship was different. The lessons learned from that season, particularly from this Game 7, was that it was, in fact, possible for the Cardinals to win an all-important game we all assumed they wouldn’t. The postseason disappointments going back the previous ten years had conditioned us to think that it couldn’t be done.
An 83-win Cardinals team doesn’t go into Shea Stadium - as intimidating of a baseball venue there’s ever been - and knock off a heavily-favored 97-win team in a Game 7. The Cardinals just aren’t meant to win when Endy Chavez makes that play in left. And even if it looks like they actually might win, Carlos Beltran was surely going to step in at the last second and show us we were all fools for believing that. The idea of winning that crucial game seemed impossible until the very moment that it wasn’t. That’s why it was the best.