Mets Insider: Hearing is believing for fans

A crack. And a gasp. Those two sounds will probably stay forever lodged front and center in the memory banks when any future conversations turn to the story of the Mets' 3-1 loss to the Cardinals in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS.

The crack of the bat as Yadier Molina connected with Aaron Heilman's ill-placed changeup in the ninth-inning of a tie game whose winner would be going to the World Series, and whose loser would be going home. The unique crack that almost always signifies a home run.

Followed a split second later by the collective gasp of 56,000 Mets fans as they realized that this time, no out-of-body leap by Endy Chavez was going to prevent the ball from going over the leftfield fence and giving the Cards the lead.

Damage coming. And damage done.

Before Molina's blast, it certainly seemed like the most lasting memory of the game was going to be Chavez's spectacular sixth-inning catch to rob Scott Rolen of his own homer--a catch that every single Mets asked about it afterwards, from Shawn Green and Cliff Floyd to Carlos Delgado and David Wright, acknowledged as "the best play" they'd ever seen.

It was in that subdued Mets clubhouse that General Manager Omar Minaya mentioned another memorable New York baseball moment, from over half a century ago: Sandy Amoros' similarly miraculous catch of a Yogi Berra fly ball that helped the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.

As with fellow leftfielder Amoros' play in that historic seventh game, Chavez's grab seemed like a heaven-sent signal that the 2006 Mets were going to the promised land, and thus finally get over the hump that for the last decade had made them the Avis to the Yankees' Hertz in the New York state of mind.

It was not to be, though. Just as it was not to be that closer Billy Wagner would be on the mound for the top of the ninth of the most important game of the entire season. Wagner, after all, had been asked to hold the Cardinals at bay with the score tied in the ninth inning of Game Two, and couldn't do it. And when Willie Randolph gave him the opportunity to regain some managerial trust in Game Six, Wagner nearly coughed up a four-run lead with another rocky performance.

Asked after Game Seven, then, about his decision to keep Wagner in the bullpen at such a critical juncture, Randolph claimed that "With all the righties coming up, I thought we could get another inning with him [Heilman] and bring in Billy after that."

A good explanation--except that, outside of Jim Edmonds, the entire Cardinals lineup was righthanded.

Which left Heilman, who'd looked sharp in the eighth, still pitching in the ninth. Ironically, it was Aaron Heilman's very success at the job he didn't want--relief pitcher--that deposited the once and (in his mind) still future starter into the position of having the entire Mets season riding on his right arm. And as the disappointed Heilman explained later, he made "just one bad pitch"--and it cost him, dearly.

Not that the Mets went quietly into that great good night of their 2006 baseball season. They put the tieing runs on base, but Randolph opted not to call on Chris Woodward to sacrifice them into scoring position, and instead sent up on the still-hobbling slugger Cliff Floyd to pinch-hit.

Randolph was obviousy hoping that Floyd--unable to run but still capable of at least swinging for the fences--would provide a Kirk Gibson-esque, for-the-history-books moment. It was not to be, though. Floyd struck out looking at a wicked Adam Wainwright curveball, and after the Mets loaded the bases with two outs, Carlos Beltran was caught looking at another curve. And that was that.

No crack, no gasp. Just a huge sigh of despair--and a dream ended. At least until 2007.

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