Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series title is best long-shot comeback in baseball history

JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS - Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols savors the moment on the diamond after St. Louis defeated the Texas Rangers to win the World Series in seven games.

ST. LOUIS

Afterward, when explanations are expected, one St. Louis Cardinals player or manager or official after another stood on a platform at second base and tried to tell the tens of thousands of standing, cheering, red-clad fans what they had done, how they had done it and what it meant.

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Behind series MVP David Freese the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the World Series with a win over Texas in Game 7, 6-2. (Oct. 28)

Behind series MVP David Freese the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the World Series with a win over Texas in Game 7, 6-2. (Oct. 28)

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In Game 7 of one of the best World Series in 50 years, the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers, 6-2, to complete what was absolutely the best long-shot comeback from the baseball boneyard in the sport’s history.

If anyone could have stood, soaked in champagne, and glibly explained such a thing, it would actually have diminished an accomplishment that only stands taller — a bit like the huge Gateway Arch beyond the center field fence — because it is tinged with sports magic, the mystery of team chemistry and the alchemy of late-season baseball luck.

As a symbol of all that is unforeseeable in sports, and the more wonderful because of it, the MVP award went to a local boy, now grown, named David Freese, who finally blossomed a bit at 28 and, after a season in which he batted only 333 times, burned his name across October lore, adding a World Series MVP award to his National League Championship Series MVP.

“I’ve had plenty of days when I didn’t even think I would be a big leaguer,” he said after amassing 25 hits and 50 totals bases in this postseason, including the first two RBI in this Game 7.

“Incredible. Dream come true,” said Freese, who said he had slept only “about 45 minutes, I was so wired” the previous night after his season-saving triple in the ninth inning and walk-off homer in the 11th inning in the instant-classic Game 6.

The feat that these Cardinals from the Crypt completed here on Friday night in bouncing Busch Stadium was like winning the lottery, but on merit.

For decades, and perhaps even generations in this baseball-as-secular-religion city, what the Birds did in the last 65 days of this season will be retold with amazement and, perhaps someday, almost with a hint of skepticism: Great-Grandpa might be embellishing a few details because, while some of this stuff could be true, surely all of it couldn’t.

Yet it was. It is. We saw it. And we get all winter to digest what even now seems like a sequence of escapes, heroics and last-strike-of-the-season rescues from the edge of a 10,000-foot cliff that make you tingle, chuckle or want to cheer all over again just reciting them.

What moves us so much about a two-month trek like the one the Cards just finished is not that it is literally “impossible.” Of course, it’s not. What grabs us is that it borders on the unbelievable, it presses against the wall of wish fulfillment, in a way that we recognize from our own lives.

What the Cardinals have done in their athletic world is akin to the best possible outcome we could imagine for ourselves, or those we love, in some area of our lives if maximum effort and maximum good fortune conspired.

Those here, clad in red and waving white towels, as well as all of us who have joined this ride along the way, don’t cheer the Cardinals, root for them, identify with them because they are complete heroes but because, as a club that merely tied for the eighth-best regular-season record in 2011, they are slightly flawed athletes banding together to surpass themselves.

If you calculate and approximate the true percentages against the Redbirds — their comeback from 10½ games behind to win the wild card on the last midnight of the regular season; beating the Phillies and Brewers in the playoffs as underdogs while spotting them home-field advantage; and, finally, beating the Rangers, an almost universal pick to win this series — you’d probably come up with something like 1,000 to 1.

Who doesn’t dream that such a thing could happen to them? Now, it has befallen not only the Cardinals but all of St. Louis and much of the Midwest.

The heroes of this final win were exactly the proper ones. Ace Chris Carpenter, who beat the 102-win Phillies, 1-0, in Philadelphia in the fifth game of their National League Division Series, worked his third start of this World Series and got his second victory — this time pitching on three days’ rest for only the second time in his career. His six innings of two-run ball were the Cards’ ballast. Comes the moment, comes the man: 4-0 this October.

Two young Cardinals, typical of a team that gets contributions from 24 players not named Pujols, were the offensive keys. After Texas scored two runs in the top of the first off Carpenter, Freese, who had 21 RBI in the postseason, roped a double to left to score two runs to tie the game and send a message: You had your chance, our turn now.

On this crisp final night, the Cards took the lead for good, 3-2, on Allen Craig’s homer to right field in the third inning, a fitting punctuation mark for a utility man turned Superman in this series. Craig won Game 1 with a pinch-hit RBI single, almost won Game 2 with another pinch-hit RBI single, then started the Cards’ comeback from a 7-4 hole in Game 6 with a solo homer in the eighth after replacing injured Matt Holliday.

Is that enough? Not for Craig. In this game, he also walked and scored, then robbed Nelson Cruz of a home run with a leap above the left field wall on a ball that the earthbound 235-pound Holliday might have waved at. The grab cost Cruz a record: being the first man to hit nine postseason homers.

When these Cards start to peck, they don’t leave anything on the bone.

Some will argue, and may they have joy in it, that this was the best World Series ever — or very close. But the Rangers probably defused much of that discussion by crumbling in a demoralized heap in Game 7 after twice coming within a strike of their first world title in Game 6, only to see it torn from them, first by Freese and then by Lance Berkman’s two-out, two-strike, 10th-inning RBI single.

In the fifth inning of this final game, when Texas trailed only 3-2, various Rangers pitchers, now perhaps headed to witness protection, handed the Cards a walk, a hit batter, an intentional walk, a walk and another hit batter, for two gift runs without so much as a single hit. A “Greatest Series” needs a better ending than that, especially in a sport that, within living memory, had superb Series that ended with heart-in-throat Games 7s in 1960, ’75, ’91 and 2001.

A few other teams in other years have done some of the same preposterous hanging-by-a-rope-over-a-waterfall feats that the Cardinals have accomplished. Some, like the 1914 Boston Braves, ’51 Giants, ‘78 Yankees and 2007 Rockies, have made up huge deficits late in the season. But some didn’t finish the job by winning the World Series. Some didn’t play in eras when they had to win three postseason rounds of play. Some didn’t enter as on-the-merits underdogs with humble stats — like a mere plus-70 run differential, compared to the Rangers whopping plus-178.

And none of them were down to their last strike twice in Game 6.

To add to the sense of almost blissful completeness that this night encompassed, baseball has, almost certainly, just completed the most exciting, improbable, dramatic and all-around wonderful month in the game’s history. Oh, yes, we’re sitting on another “best.”

This divine madness began after midnight on September 28th as Boston and Atlanta collapsed on the last night of the regular season, letting the Rays and Cards into the October party. The unexpected thrills continued as the Yankees and their $200 million-plus payroll were knocked out in Game 5 of their American League Division Series by the Tigers, while the Cards did the same to the Phillies and their Four Aces.

So, between Sept. 28th and this final night of October 28th, baseball has produced so many superior games it would be silly to list them all.

“Last night, after Game 6, I told several friends, ‘I’m really proud to be the commissioner of a sport that can produce what just happened,’ ” Bud Selig said before Friday’s game.

Now, as one last tasty morsel, that amazing Game 6 can now get its full due. The team that wouldn’t die erased every bleak memory from its embarrassing Phone Follies Fiasco in Game 5. Seems like years ago already. Why, Tony La Russa can probably laugh about it. Okay, maybe not.

But he and his Cards, and every baseball fan, maybe including a few in Texas with especially broad minds, can all join in the last laugh, the last grin and the final glow of a two-month St. Louis drive from irrelevance to a title the like of which has never been seen since the World Series began in 1903.

It was worth the wait.

 
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