NEW YORK -- Omar Minaya thought it was a triple. Game tied, the Mets' architect thought. Shea Stadium going crazy, 1986 style.

Jose Reyes thought so too, and he was the guy who hit it.

Twenty years later, however, the magic belonged to the other side, to Cardinals Yadier Molina, Jeff Suppan and Adam Wainwright in a 3-1 Game 7 National League Championship Series triumph that thrust St. Louis into the World Series.

No miracle finish from these Mets this time, although there was a miracle catch from left fielder Endy Chavez, one of the greatest in postseason history.

Chavez's sublime play, scaling the left-field wall to snatch a two-run homer from Scott Rolen in the sixth inning, and gritty pitching from Oliver Perez kept the Mets in the game even as Suppan was making their offense disappear -- until the bottom of the ninth, when everything seemed possible again.

After singles by Jose Valentin and Chavez and a strikeout by pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd, Reyes' searing line drive was handled on the move by Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals' great center fielder, for the second out.

Moments later, Carlos Beltran looked at a wicked curveball from Wainwright for a third strike, leaving the bases loaded, and St. Louis was on its way to Detroit for the World Series, starting on Saturday night.

"It wasn't meant to be," Minaya said, shaking his head. "What else can you say?"

That about says it all.

The Mets were the best team in the National League all season, but for seven games in October, that distinction belonged to the Cardinals -- by the most slender of threads.

"They played better than us," Reyes said. "They deserved to win. But we gave it everything we had."

Manager Willie Randolph handled his disappointment in style.

"I say congratulations to Tony La Russa and his ballclub and organization," Randolph said. "They did a great job of fighting back in the series and beating us.

"I'm disappointed for our ballclub. When you bust it all year from Spring Training, it's definitely disappointing. But I'm real proud of my guys. I told them many times how much I appreciate their resolve and their attitude, the character of the club."

Sensational all season, Beltran was the man the Mets wanted swinging the bat in that final situation -- bases loaded, two outs in the ninth, everything on the line.

"The first pitch was a changeup [for a strike]," Beltran said, recreating an at-bat he'd love to have over. "The second pitch was a curveball down that I fouled. The third pitch was a backdoor breaking ball."

"An unhittable pitch," Minaya called it, and Beltran agreed.

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"It's difficult," Beltran said. "But that's life. We've got to live with the good moments and bad moments. This was one of the bad ones I'll remember forever."

Molina's two-run homer on an Aaron Heilman hanging changeup in the top of the ninth was the difference after Wainwright, a closer for about a month in the absence of the injured Jason Isringhausen, got in trouble and escaped with a dramatic flourish.

"I battled through a tough at-bat with Rolen," Heilman said, "and, unfortunately, I left a pitch up, and [Molina] was able to get a pretty good piece of it and put it where Endy couldn't catch it this time."

The Cards made it to the ninth even at 1 because Suppan pitched seven brilliant innings, matched by Perez's six excellent innings and one otherworldly catch by Chavez.

"I thought of [Brooklyn's] Sandy Amoros in the 1955 World Series," said Minaya, recalling the catch and double play that made a champion of the Dodgers at the expense of Yogi Berra and the Yankees.

Chavez's spectacular stab also resulted in a double play, when Valentin's relay from shallow left easily nailed Edmonds at first.

"That was incredible," said Perez, who hugged Chavez in the dugout as if he didn't want to let go. "I felt good that I had a strong finish to the season and kept the team in the game, but it's a sad end to the season."

The Mets had a golden opportunity to break it open in the bottom half of the inning after Rolen's two-base throwing error put runners on second and third, and an intentional walk created a bases-loaded predicament with one out. But Suppan struck out Valentin on a nasty curveball and retired Chavez on a fly ball to center.

"I've never seen a catch like that," Beltran said. "After that catch, you expect to score a run. But Suppan was tough. He kept everybody off balance."

Suppan, who gave up five hits and one run in 15 NLCS innings, departed after walking Beltran leading off the eighth.

Left-handed reliever Randy Flores, in the brand of relief that characterized La Russa's bullpen, struck out Carlos Delgado and David Wright and retired Shawn Green on a ground ball.

Flores was credited with the win when Rolen stroked a one-out single in the ninth against Heilman -- who'd struck out two men in a scoreless eighth -- and Molina unloaded to numb a Shea sellout numbering 56,357.

Showing their characteristic resilience, the Mets didn't go quietly in the ninth against Wainwright and his dominant stuff.

Valentin dropped a full-count single into shallow right-center, and Chavez banged a single to left. Floyd, on his ailing left Achilles tendon, took several big cuts before looking at a third strike.

Reyes, the Game 6 hero with a homer among three hits, sent a 1-2 rocket to center that had fans rising hopefully until it landed in Edmonds' gold glove.

"I really thought it had a shot [of going through] when I hit it," Reyes said. "I put my best swing on it and hit it hard. It was so close. Sometimes luck isn't with you."

This brought up Beltran, with his 41 regular-season homers and three in this series, with his 116 regular-season RBIs and four in the series.

Perez, whose Game 4 effort in St. Louis revived the Mets, left for Chad Bradford to start the seventh, having limited the Cards to a run on four hits, two walks and a hit batsman in six exceptional innings.

Perez and Suppan both had some bad luck in surrendering early runs.

Beltran checked his swing on an 0-2 pitch before lining a double past third with two outs in the first. After a full-count walk by Delgado, Wright flared a Suppan delivery over first into shallow right, and it fell for an RBI single. Suppan then retired Green on a liner to third.

The Mets didn't get another hit until the ninth.

Perez, who recovered from Delgado's two-base error on Albert Pujols' popup to get out of the first, yielded a leadoff single to Edmonds in the second and a one-out single by Molina blooped into left, sending Edmonds to third. Ronnie Belliard pushed a bunt between the mound and first base to score Edmonds, and Perez struck out Suppan to close the inning.

Pumping high heat in the mid-90s, Perez blew away Preston Wilson after David Eckstein's leadoff double in the third. Pujols was walked intentionally, leaving it to cleanup man Juan Encarnacion, who grounded to third for an inning-ending double play.

Wilson, whose stepfather is former Mets star Mookie Wilson, had another chance to break the Mets' hearts in the fifth -- and struck out again on high heat with two on and one out. Up stepped Pujols, who lifted a lazy popup that Reyes handled in shallow left as the crowd roared its approval.

That roar was nothing compared to the one Chavez provided in the sixth with his sensational play.

But all the noise died in sorrow in Queens when Wainwright threw a third strike past Beltran, and the Cardinals celebrated in the middle of Shea Stadium.