ST. LOUIS — The Texas Rangers were finding out Thursday night, in Game 6 of the World Series, what the entire National League found out in September, what the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers found out in October: You cannot kill the St. Louis Cardinals. If they are down to their last game, they will win it. If they are down to their last out, they will redeem it. If they are down to their last strike, you’d better paint the corner and pray.
It had been true for the last nine, hectic weeks, as the Cardinals’ August oblivion bled into a September charge, then into an October run for the ages. It was true again Thursday night, when the Cardinals, facing elimination, twice found themselves down to their final out and their final strike, and twice — twice! — stormed back to tie the game.
Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, David Freese connected on a full-count pitch from Rangers right-hander Mark Lowe and sent it screaming and whistling onto the grass berm in center field, and the Cardinals had a 10-9 win that pushed their never-say-die narrative into another realm, the realm of the absurd and unbelievable.
“It’s amazing. Unbelievable,” Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols said. “I don’t even know what to say. This is what it’s all about. We’ve got one more life.”
The Cardinals, improbably and astoundingly, are still alive. And on Friday night, baseball will see its first Game 7 in nine years. It will feature lefty Matt Harrison for the Rangers, most likely against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter — with any warm body on either team with an arm still attached to his torso available for relief duty.
Twice, with the Rangers holding two-run leads, the lockers in the visitors’ clubhouse were covered in plastic and the champagne was being wheeled in, for the Rangers to spray and swig in victory. And twice the bubbly had to be re-iced. In the bottom of the ninth, it was Cardinals third baseman Freese, with two outs and two strikes, banging a 98-mph fastball from Rangers closer Neftali Feliz off the wall in right field for a game-tying, two-run triple.
“I thought, when you’re down two runs to their closer in the ninth,” said Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, acknowledging the dark thoughts that had crept into his mind. “ . . . I mean, this guy is a legitimate one-two-three-and-they’re-shaking-hands. But what you try to do is get something started.”
In the bottom of the 10th, after the Rangers had taken the lead on Josh Hamilton’s two-run homer off Cardinals closer Jason Motte, the Cardinals scored twice again to tie it, with right fielder Lance Berkman — again with two outs and two strikes — delivering the big hit, a game-tying, line-drive single to center. Berkman’s hit followed an intentional walk to Pujols, an obvious and wise move in that situation, with first base open.
“That’s gotta be one for the record books,” said Daniel Descalso, a little-used Cardinals reserve infielder who led off the bottom of the 10th with a sharp single off Rangers veteran lefty Darren Oliver. “I’ve never heard of anyone being down twice like that, by two runs and down to your last strike, and coming back to win it.”
Freese’s walk-off homer in the 11th — which he said was the first of his life, at any level — came on a 3-2 change-up from Lowe and traveled an estimated 420 feet. The Cardinals were already out of their dugout by the time Freese hit first base, and when he touched home plate they set upon him, pounding his back and ultimately ripping off his jersey.
“That defines our team,” said Freese, who grew up in Missouri and had dozens of friends and family members in attendance. “There’s so many different ways to win a ballgame, and we kept battling and sneaked this one out tonight.”
As the many twists and turns of Game 6 are sorted through and digested, there were a handful of issues that will impact Friday night’s Game 7.
At least three key players were injured during the course of the game. For the Rangers, catcher Mike Napoli — who likely would have been named the series MVP if the Rangers had won — twisted his ankle on a play at second base in the fourth inning, but remained in the game. X-rays taken after the game were negative, and he is presumed available for Game 7. Also, Cruz strained his groin during his final at-bat and was taken out of the game. His status is uncertain.
For the Cardinals, left fielder Matt Holliday had his finger stepped on in the sixth inning while diving back into the third-base bag — as Napoli picked him off. He was taken out of the game, but said afterward he expects to play in Game 7.
The teams also combined to blow through 13 relief pitchers — including Texas lefty Derek Holland, their Game 4 starter — leaving their respective bullpens in various states of weariness.
The Rangers understand how big a chance they let slip away — twice. “I understand that it’s not over until you get the last out,” Manager Ron Washington said. “I was just sitting there praying that we’d get that last out. And we didn’t get it.”
They also probably understand how difficult their plight is now: No road team has won a Game 7 in the World Series since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. The last eight World Series Game 7s have been won by the home team.
“We’ll bounce back tomorrow,” Washington said.
It’s difficult to remember now, but for the first five or so innings, it was a train-wreck of a game.
It was the Cardinals’ 179th game of the season, and the Rangers’ 178th, and it was if all those hard miles and all this pent-up pressure finally threw a rod through the engine block. Both teams played at times with a shocking lack of focus, with mental errors compounded by physical ones. The Cardinals were charged with three errors — including one when Freese, with one hand and astounding nonchalance, simply dropped an easy popup — and the Rangers made two more.
The Rangers, meantime, gave themselves countless chances to put the game away, but kept finding new and astounding ways to squander them. They hit into two double plays, including a rare 5-6-4 twin-killing when starting picher Colby Lewis tried feebly to bunt in the second. They struck out four times in the first five innings with runners in scoring position.
But back-to-back homers by Adrian Beltre and Cruz in the top of the seven pushed the Rangers’ lead to 7-5. They had nine outs to go. The first World Series title in franchise history was within their grasp.
When Pujols, a pending free agent who could be in his final days in a Cardinals uniform, came to the plate to face Feliz with one out and nobody out base in the bottom of the ninth, the crowd of 47,325, sensing the import of the moment, rose out of a mixture of reverence and duty — as well as the faint hope of a comeback. Little did anyone know it would not be Pujols’s final turn at the plate.
“Everybody knows,” Pujols said, “we play 27 outs.”
Pujols reached for an outside slider from Feliz and slashed a line-drive double into the gap in left-center, and Lance Berkman followed by drawing a four-pitch walk. After Allen Craig struck out looking on a 2-2 slider, and Freese fell behind 1-2 to Feliz, the Cardinals were down to their last strike — until Freese smashed the next pitch off the wall in right.
The Cardinals piled on the tradition and history during the pregame, trotting out Hall-of-Famers Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith in red blazers. Stan Musial was driven around the warning track in a golf cart. David Eckstein, the diminutive MVP of the 2006 World Series, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
It was if they were trying to summon the power of all that had come before. But perhaps most pertinent, in the context of the Cardinals’ plight, is what they had gone through to get here — down 10½ games in the wild-card race in late August. Then, having to beat Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay in a decisive Game 5 in their NL Division Series.
For 10 innings Thursday night, those same Cardinals never led the game. And then one batter into the bottom of the 11th, suddenly they did.