NEW YORK (AP) _ The New York Mets are handing the ball _ and their season _ to Oliver Perez in Game 7. That's right, Oliver Perez, who was demoted to the minors by lowly Pittsburgh less than four months ago.

The erratic lefty who went 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA in the big leagues this year. The guy who couldn't seem to throw a strike earlier this season.

And he'll be pitching on only three days' rest against St. Louis stalwart Jeff Suppan.

``One game,'' Mets manager Willie Randolph said Wednesday night. ``He'll have plenty of time to rest after that, I'm sure.''

With New York still piecing together an injury-depleted pitching staff, Perez will start the NL championship series finale Thursday night, an unlikely stop on a roller-coaster ride that took him from emerging ace to forgotten castoff in a two-season span.

His opponent will be Suppan, who beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS and tossed eight shutout innings of three-hit ball Saturday night against the Mets.

``Jeff is amazing. He's been in this game before,'' St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols said. ``It doesn't matter who we face, we're going to score.''

Plus, Suppan is on full rest.

``He's been big for us all year. He's been big in the postseason. He's a professional. He's going to come out and compete,'' Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter said.

Quite a matchup in a game that will decide who goes to the World Series to face the Detroit Tigers.

``Game 7 starts right now,'' St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said minutes after New York's 4-2 victory Wednesday night. ``They are getting ready to have the experience of a lifetime if you're in professional sports.

``It's an experience you'll never forget. It will be one of the most enjoyable things, especially if you do it right as far as getting ready and doing the best that you can. You'll never forget it. I'd prefer our club to not go through it, obviously, but it's magical. So I'm sure we'll be ready,'' he added.

Once the Mets got past Carpenter in Game 6 and pushed the series to the limit, they had a decision to make.

Sure, they would love to have a healthy Pedro Martinez or Orlando Hernandez right about now. Those guys aren't available, though.

That left Steve Trachsel as a possibility. Perhaps long man Darren Oliver, too.

But Perez was warned Wednesday that he might get the call in Game 7, and the Mets indeed tabbed him after winning Game 6.

``Everyone wants to pitch in the seventh game. You have to just prepare,'' Perez said. ``I'm happy now. It's another opportunity for me.''

Randolph had a simple explanation.

``Oliver Perez is pitching, and because I like him,'' the manager said. ``He's done a nice job for us since he's been here.''

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are all set up with Suppan.

``My confidence comes from our team and I focus on what we have to do as a team to win,'' he said before Game 6.

Trachsel would have been on his regular turn Thursday, but he was knocked out of Game 3 with a bruised thigh after getting hit by Preston Wilson's comebacker _ and he has a 14.54 ERA in two playoff starts covering only 4 1-3 innings.

Oliver pitched brilliantly in relief of Trachsel, throwing six scoreless innings of three-hit ball. But the left-hander hasn't made a major league start since 2004 with Houston.

The 25-year-old Perez won Game 4 on Sunday night when New York's bats broke loose for a 12-5 victory. He lasted 5 2-3 innings, giving up five runs and nine hits with just one walk in his first outing since Oct. 1.

He isn't exactly Sandy Koufax, though. An afterthought when he was acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, Perez became only the second major league pitcher to finish 10 games under .500 and start a postseason game.

Now, he'll do it again, in an even more intense situation.

``He's throwing the ball well,'' Randolph said. ``He needs to give us another quality start and just go with everything we've got tomorrow. Seventh game is exciting, and we're looking forward to that challenge.''

With a power fastball and snappy slider, Perez has been a winner before, going 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 196 innings in 2004 with the Pirates. But he had fallen off dramatically since, and the Mets took a chance that pitching coach Rick Peterson could help turn Perez into a successful reclamation project.

``This is the ultimate test,'' Mets third baseman David Wright said. ``I'm very confident with him. He's got electric stuff. If he goes out there and can control it, that's what he needs to do.''

This season, the Pirates got so frustrated with Perez that they gave up on him at age 24 and shipped him to New York with reliever Roberto Hernandez in a July 31 deal for outfielder Xavier Nady.

Perez's only major league start on three days' rest came on Sept. 18, 2005, against Cincinnati. It followed an outing against St. Louis during which he was ejected in the second inning.

``It doesn't matter, really. Time to go,'' Randolph said.

Randolph said he would settle on a starter once his team forced a seventh game. The Mets did that by beating Carpenter and the Cardinals behind rookie starter John Maine and offensive spark plug Jose Reyes.

And regardless of their pitching mess, the Mets have this streak in their favor: The past 11 home teams that won Game 6 of an LCS or World Series to stave off elimination have won Game 7, too. The last time a home team dropped Game 7 after winning Game 6 was 1975, when Boston lost to Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.

But the Cardinals have this going for them: No team in major league history has won more do-or-die Game 7s than the Cardinals, who are 9-4 in those instances.

In fact, they captured their most recent pennant by beating Houston in Game 7 in 2004 _ behind a big effort from Suppan.