Monday, December 26, 2011

2006 NLCS: Mighty Carlos Strikes Out

How they got here
The records of the teams in the 2006 NLCS were a little bit deceiving. The Mets belonged in the series, winning a League-high 97 games and winning the NL East by 12 games, ending Atlanta's 14-year stranglehold on the division in the meantime. Boasting a lineup full of all-stars and a pitching staff full of veterans with postseason experience, the Mets seemed perfectly built for postseason success.

The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, seemed like a fluke. With Albert Pujols their only true hitting star and Chris Carpenter their only reliable starter, the Cardinals squeaked into the postseason despite winning only 83 games that year. That's where the records can be deceiving, though, as St. Louis had a good record most of the season and had the NL Central pretty much wrapped up before a late-season collapse made their final record look pedestrian.

If anybody had any doubt as to whether the Cardinals belonged in the playoffs, St. Louis erased them by easily beating the Padres in the NLDS. After the Mets swept the Dodgers in the other first-round series, the two former East Division rivals squared off for the National League title.

In Game 1, the Mets' pitching experience paid off; while Carlos Beltran's two-run home run was their only offense, former Braves standout Tom Glavine made it hold up by pitching a shutout. In Game 2, unheralded outfielder So Taguchi hit a home run off Mets closer Billy Wagner to give the Cardinals the win. A Game 3 shutout by little-known Jeff Suppan gave the Cardinals the series lead, while the Mets' two Carlos's - Beltran and Delgado - combined for three home runs in a Game 4 win. The teams traded 4-2 wins in the next two games to set up Game 7 in Shea Stadium in Queens.

The Game
There are three defining moments from Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, two of which looked exactly the same. It's the three moments that were replayed over and over, the three moments that were remembered more fondly than the World Series that followed.

The first big moment came in the top of the sixth, with the Cardinals hoping to break a 1-1 tie. With a runner on first, Scott Rolen lifted the first pitch of the at bat from starter Oliver Perez to deep left field. Endy Chavez slowly drifted back, reached out for the wall as he hit the warning track, jumped as high as he could and, timing the jump perfectly, came down with the ball. While the fans were realizing about a second later he had caught the ball, Chavez fired back to the infield, where the Mets were able to double off Jim Edmonds to end the inning still tied.

The catch made Chavez an instant hero in New York. It was one of the greatest catches ever made in a postseason game, one that was sure to make him a baseball legend, if only the Mets could pull it out.

Top of the ninth now. Still tied 1-1. Both starters gone, the teams turning to their strong bullpens. Rolen works a nine-pitch at bat before hitting a one-out single. Up comes Yadier Molina. Like his two brothers, Molina was a great defensive catcher and a relatively poor hitter. But like his brothers, he was capable of hitting one out if he got a hold of one. And he got a hold of one, hitting it deep and high to left field. Endy Chavez slowly drifted back, reached out for the wall as he hit the warning track, jumped as high as he could and, timing the jump just slightly short of perfectly, came down with air. He couldn't believe it. Mets fans couldn't believe it. And, perhaps most telling, Molina couldn't believe it. Of all the candidates to hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning of Game 7, Molina would have probably ranked 10th among his own teammates. And yet he had done it, and created his own moment.

To the bottom of the ninth, and another potential Great Moment in Baseball History. See, the Mets managed to load the bases with two outs, and up to bat came Carlos Beltran. He was their best hitter, their team leader, and had been red-hot this entire series. The first two pitches of the at bat were strikes. This was something straight out of "Casey at the Bat," only Casey was Carlos, and Mudville was Flushing, Queens, New York. And in his famous poem, Casey swung and missed at strike three, while in real life Carlos left the bat on his shoulder, watching a curveball drop into the strike zone and leaving the bases loaded. There was no joy in Queens as mighty Carlos struck out.

The 2006 Cardinals may have been the second-worst team to ever make it to the World Series, but they sure looked like the better team against the Tigers. It was really no contest, with the Cardinals winning in five games in a series I have absolutely no memory of, in the process becoming the worst team - at least record-wise - to ever win a World Series.

Despite the heartbreaking loss in the NLCS, the Mets entered the offseason with a lot of promise, hoping they had finally found the right combination to win a World Series. Instead, their veteran pitchers became merely old, with nobody good ready to replace them, and their young offensive stars became injured stars. The Mets haven't been to the playoffs since that loss, and now their owner is broke - thanks to Bernie Madoff - and their franchise is directionless. What might have changed if only Mighty Carlos hadn't struck out?

What I'm doing.

The list so far:
4. 2006 NLCS: St. Louis 3, New York 1
5. 1976 ALCS: New York 7, Kansas City 6
6. 1977 ALCS: New York 5, Kansas City 3
7. 1972 NLCS: Cincinnati 4, Pittsburgh 3
8. 1981 NLCS: Los Angeles 2, Montreal 1
9. 1982 ALCS: Milwaukee 4, California 3
10. 2008 ALCS: Tampa Bay 3, Boston 1
11. 1984 NLCS: San Diego 6, Chicago 3
12. 2003 NLCS: Florida 9, Chicago 6
13. 2004 NLCS: St. Louis 5, Houston 2
14. 1972 ALCS: Oakland 2, Detroit 1
15. 1973 ALCS: Oakland 3, Baltimore 0
16. 1985 ALCS: Kansas City 6, Toronto 2
17. 2007 ALCS: Boston 11, Cleveland 2
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0

Still to come:
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York

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