Nobody said “best.” Every mistake known to baseball, and some heretofore undiscovered, was perpetrated by the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals in the first eight innings on this chilly night that broke the impossible meter not once but several times. But, oh, those last three innings.
The final instant of marvelous madness came at 12:40 Eastern time at the end of 4 hours 33 minutes of nonstop drama when David Freese, who had already saved the Cards’ season in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run triple when they were down to their last strike, blasted a 429-foot home run to straightaway center field. The towering missile, into the grass, into the fans jumping from the bleachers to fight for the ball, and into history, made the final score 10-9, in 11 innings — suitably silly, surreal and unsurpassable.
Now, we get Game 7 — and not just any Game 7, but one that has been set up as only a very few ever have been before. Don’t be certain you know the winner yet. In a game I covered that wasn’t this good in the 1975 Series, Carlton Fisk hit a fairly memorable walk-off home run. But the Reds won the World Series the next day.
However, for the Cards, the possibilities for a date with a truly unique place in baseball history are on their plate now, probably with their ace, Chris Carpenter, pitching on three days’ rest against lefty Matt Harrison.
If they win, where do they stand with teams like the ’14 Miracle Braves, the ’78 Yankees and the 2004 Red Sox? Go on, after this game, try to tell anyone here that anyone will rank above them — that is, if they win.
The list of Mission Impossible tasks began when the Cardinals were down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth inning. Then the Rangers should have grasped their first world title in 50 years of franchise existence. But Freese, the Cards’ young third baseman, perhaps a blossoming superstar who was the unexpected MVP of the National League Championship Series, hit a two-run triple off the right field wall off star Rangers closer Neftali Feliz to tie the game at 7.
When the Rangers went ahead once more, 9-7, in the top of the 10th inning on Josh Hamilton’s two-run homer into the right-center field bleachers off a 98 mph fastball from Cards closer Jason Motte, that also should have iced this Ranger title. You’d think. But, since August 25th, when they were 10½ games out of the wild-card chase and declared dead by everyone in baseball — except themselves — these Redbirds have done things that defy probability and bring them to the forefront of the most amazing comeback teams in the sport’s history.
So, in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Cardinals struck again — once more for two runs, once more to tie the game. This time, Lance Berkman, who had a walk, two singles and a two-run homer, was down to the last St. Louis strike when he swatted a single to center field. To make the hit sweeter for the Cards, it came after Texas Manager Ron Washington had ordered Albert Pujols intentionally walked for the fifth time in the series.
Payback at last.
To give the Rangers their due, they escaped jams in the ninth and 10th when one more hit of any kind would have ended the game.
But they were only delaying a date with a delicious destiny.
“I felt like I was part of a circus, bouncing balls off the top of my hat,” said Freese, who made one of several Cards misplays — only three of them scored as errors — when a routine popup bounced out of his glove, off his head and led to a Rangers run. “Then, in the end, it’s incredible to be part of that.”
Freese is a hometown boy, steeped in Cardinals lore. Some players never have to buy a drink in their towns. Freese may never have to buy another car or house.
“It’s not ‘fun’ to go up there with the season on the line. But the experience is incredible. ‘Loose’ is not how I would describe it,” Berkman said. “When you’re a little kid and you’re out there [imagining this], you don’t have a bunch of reporters and fans that are ready to call you a choking dog if you don’t come through. . . . All little kids out there, be careful what you wish for.”
Everybody laughed. But millions more kids just bought into the Freese-Berkman dream, wise or not.
Freese had never faced Feliz before and was surprised to be started with sliders. “Now what’s coming?’ he said he thought. “I swung through a heater, then got another one and didn’t miss it.”
“That ball [Freese] hit is a home run in 99 percent of the ballparks in baseball, but not here,” said Berkman, slightly exaggerating. “That ball [in the ninth] was the walk-off. He just went and did it” again.
So, now, both of his blasts will be Freese-framed forever.
From the Rangers’ bitter perspective, this wild night seemed to replay all the stages of their baseball evolution, starting with their grotesque days of last-place finishes in Washington to their current status as back-to-back American League champions.
Yeah, yeah, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” But this is ridiculous. The Rangers have to go all the way back to the embryonic humiliations of the old expansion Senators, then work their way back to their current fully-formed state of baseball maturity and finally end up facing a Game 7 in which they hardly know what their final form will be — a beauty beloved in Texas or a homely team that couldn’t finish.
One strike away — twice — the Rangers turned back into the expansion Nats, the team Arlington, Tex., stole from the District 40 years ago. As a nasty twist, right fielder Nelson Cruz may have misjudged the ball slightly, or been a tiny bit wall-shy, as he came up three feet short. Don’t call it fair. Don’t call it justice deferred. Don’t dream that there is symmetry to watching Feliz, who throws 100 mph, turn into Frank Bertaina or Jim Shellenback or some other Nats arsonist of long ago.
What happened to the Rangers on this night exceeded all sentencing guidelines for absconding with a baseball team. To blow a lead in the bottom of the ninth inning to a Cardinals team that tried to defeat itself all night with awful fielding and dumb base-running was cruel and far beyond unusual, even by the often hallucinatory standards of October ball.
For the record, the first time the Rangers almost won, leading 7-5 into the ninth, was built on back-to-back seventh-inning home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz off Lance Lynn, plus a stellar bullpen turn by southpaw starter Derek Holland. Ha! That’s when this game began.
Both teams tried to give this game away so many times that the loser’s sleep was preordained to be horrific. The Rangers got two errors from first baseman Michael Young, issued three consecutive walks to force in a St. Louis run and botched all three sacrifice bunts they attempted. And, 30 years from now, four of their relievers will probably still wake up screaming.
The unraveling that Cards Manager Tony La Russa and his dugout telephone hijinks started in Game 5, the rest of his Redbirds appeared ready to finish. It seemed the Cards were ready to come apart. You can’t appreciate the glory of the St. Louis comebacks until you realize how close they came not just to losing but to losing in a way that would have seemed disgraceful to many of them.
Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday and Freese both dropped routine pop flies that were hit right at them. Both mistakes led to runs. A St. Louis pitcher fielded a bad sacrifice bunt attempt, wheeled and flung the ball far over his infielders’ heads, straight to his center fielder. The seventh Ranger run reached scoring position on a wild pitch. And Holliday got picked off third with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning of a 4-4 game; on the play, he suffered a bruised pinkie finger and was taken out of the game.
“You had to see it to believe it,” La Russa said. No, that’s wrong. Even if you were lucky enough to see this game, with the Cards down to their final strike twice, you still don’t believe it. And because of that, you may not sleep until Game 7 finally starts.