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.

"Our team deserves it," Wainwright said. "We battled so hard in the playoffs."

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.

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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.

"I can't let my team down right there," said Wainwright, who had three saves in the series.

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 ERA in five NLCS starts. In 2004, he beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS for St. Louis.

This time, Suppan pitched into the eighth inning and allowed only two hits — none after the first.

"We never gave up. We always believed in ourselves," Suppan said.

Randy Flores worked a scoreless eighth for the win as the Cardinals' young bullpen came through again.

Reclamation project Oliver Perez, an unlikely starter for the injury-depleted Mets, matched Suppan most of the night, yielding only one run through six innings.

But New York's normally relentless lineup couldn't muster enough offense.

"It's really disappointing. It was a great game," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "We just didn't get any big hits."

With a runner on in the sixth and Rolen coming up, Randolph went to the mound for a chat with 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 few Mets raised their arms high as they came off the field, and Perez waited near first base to give a hearty greeting to Chavez, who got more hugs by the bench.

Fans chanted "En-dy Cha-vez!" and roared "Whooaaa!" over and over again as the replay was shown several times on the big video board in left-center.

Chavez watched, too, and finally came out for a curtain call — quite a rarity for a defensive play.

Perhaps still thinking about his near-miss but more likely bothered by a slick ball, Rolen, a Gold Glove third baseman, threw away David Wright's slow grounder for a potentially costly error in the bottom of the sixth.

That helped the Mets load the bases with one out, but Suppan struck out Valentin.

The light-hitting Chavez then had a chance to deliver with his bat, but he flied out, leaving him 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position during the series.

"A little tumultuous inning there for No. 27," Rolen said.

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 on his way to the dugout, 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.

This from a guy who was demoted to the minors by lowly Pittsburgh in June. In fact, he was barely an afterthought when the Mets acquired him with reliever Roberto Hernandez at the July 31 trade deadline.

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

Randolph also stayed with the 25-year-old lefty after a visit to the mound with two on in the fifth. Perez promptly struck out Preston Wilson, then went right after Pujols. And when the big slugger popped up to end the inning, Perez pointed toward the sky as the Mets charged off the field.

New York took the lead with a two-out rally in the first. Beltran beat out a double, Carlos Delgado walked and Wright blooped an RBI single to right.

But the Cardinals responded to New York runs all series, and they did it again in the second.

Molina dunked a soft single into short left, putting runners at the corners and setting up Ronnie Belliard's run-scoring sacrifice bunt.

Pujols was intentionally walked in the third before Perez got cleanup batter Juan Encarnacion to ground into an inning-ending double play.

With shards of Encarnacion's shattered bat lying on the grass in front of home plate, Perez pumped his fist and pounded his glove before receiving an enthusiastic high-five from a fired-up Randolph when he reached the dugout.

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