ST. LOUIS - Jeff Suppan pitched the game of his life, light- hitting Yadier Molina muscled up for a huge home run and rookie closer Adam Wainwright froze the New York Mets' best hitter.
Although the stakes will be considerably lower, memories of the St. Louis Cardinals' Game 7 win in last year's NL championship series will be fresh when the teams play the 2007 major league opener tonight.
"We try not to make too big a deal of it because it is only the first week of the season," Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds said. "It's always nice to get out of Florida and get to the big league stadiums. Going home is going to be incredible."
Ceremonies will feature members of the Cardinals' World Series winners of 1967 and 1982, including Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Bruce Sutter.
Pitchers who got the final out of the Cardinals' last three championships will throw out ceremonial first pitches to their managers: Gibson to Red Schoendienst, Sutter to Whitey Herzog and Wainwright to Tony La Russa. Actor Billy Bob Thornton will be master of ceremonies for the pregame festivities, and REO Speedwagon will perform "The Star-Spangled Banner." As usual, the Cardinals will enter one at a time in a convertible motorcade snaking around the warning track.
"St. Louis makes it such a spectacle," La Russa said. "You can finish last, and you come back the next year, and you'll be totally excited and think you're going to conquer the world."
Molina's two-run homer in the ninth inning off Aaron Heilman sent the Cardinals to the World Series, where they beat Detroit in five games. The Mets missed a chance to rally in the bottom half when Carlos Beltran took a season-ending called third strike on Wainwright's curveball with the bases loaded.
While the Mets won 97 games during the regular season, matching the Yankees for the major league high, the Cardinals were 83-78, the second-worst record of any World Series team, trailing only the 82-79 mark of the 1973 Mets.
"I think it's good for us to be there when those guys get their rings, when those guys raise the banner, because they outplayed us for seven games," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "Also, I think it pushes us and motivates us because we know how close we came last year."
After more than six weeks of spring training, both teams were ready to get out of Florida.
"After a while, you get to the point that you're just ready to go," said Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who will oppose Tom Glavine in the opener. "You want it to start counting. It'll be a long season, and I'm looking forward to going out and competing every day, and hopefully we can get back to October baseball."
Both teams begin the year at less than full strength. Mets ace Pedro Martinez and the Cardinals' Mark Mulder are both coming off shoulder surgery and will miss the first half of the season. The Mets also are without setup man Duaner Sanchez, who has a broken bone in his right shoulder and is not expected back until August, and Guillermo Mota, suspended for 50 games following a positive steroids test.
Edmonds, who got a late start to spring training following operations on his right shoulder and left toe, expects to play in the opening series. Fellow outfielder Juan Encarnacion needs more time, however, to build strength in his surgically repaired left wrist.
Carpenter is the Cardinals' lone holdover from last year's opening-day rotation, backed by a foursome of Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes, Wainwright and Braden Looper that combined for just 18 major league wins.
Glavine is one of two 41-year- olds, along with Orlando Hernandez, in a suspect Mets rotation that includes John Maine, Oliver Perez and rookie Mike Pelfrey.
"It's a long, long season," Mets outfielder Shawn Green said. "People like to get caught up in the first couple of games, but in reality there's 162 games, and it's the teams that can endure that are going to be on top."
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