As the top of the ninth inning rolled around Thursday night, the Texas Rangers’ plight in the World Series was teetering between grim and hopeless. Down by a run to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2, the Rangers were three outs from falling into a two-game hole in the series. Their once-fearsome offense had vanished, having scored in exactly one of the series’ 17 innings to that point, and their manager, Ron Washington, was losing ground in the chess game with his opponent with every move.

And then things started happening that hadn’t happened to the Cardinals this entire postseason. A trusted reliever stumbled. Tony La Russa’s moves went bad. And their vaunted bullpen suddenly coughed up a lead. The Rangers’ resulting 2-1 win, earned with two hard-won runs in the ninth, evened the series at a game apiece, as everyone packs up and heads south for Game 3 on Saturday night in Arlington, Tex.

“We needed to get one here,” Washington said. “Tonight was one of those great ballgames that I think you will continue to see [in this series]. That’s what you’re in for, so [to] those of you that have bad hearts, watch out.”

Consecutive sacrifice flies in the top of the ninth from Josh Hamilton and Michael Young brought home the tying and go-ahead runs. Each was off a different reliever — Hamilton’s off lefty Arthur Rhodes, Young’s off right-hander Lance Lynn — as La Russa tried to mix-and-match his way through a second-and-third, no-out mess, rather than stick with closer Jason Motte, who had gotten the Cardinals into it in the first place.

“Tony’s the boss. He makes the moves,” said Motte, who had been a perfect 5 for 5 in save opportunities before Thursday night. “But I didn’t do my job tonight.”

The Cardinals would put the leadoff man aboard in the bottom of the ninth against Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, on a walk by Yadier Molina, but three straight hitters went down against Feliz’s power arsenal — the first of whom, Nick Punto, twice failed to get down a sacrifice bunt — and the Rangers had an improbable and epic victory. They became the first team to win a World Series game in the ninth inning after trailing at the start of the inning since the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera in Game 7.

“It was huge,” Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “To be able to come from behind against a guy like [Motte] on the mound, it was a big win for us.”

A taut, crisp game — highlighted by an improbable pitchers’ duel between Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia and Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis, and a jaw-droppingly spectacular diving stop and glove-scoop throw at shortstop by Elvis Andrus in the fifth inning — appeared to have found its defining moment on a two-out, pinch-hit RBI single by the Cardinals’ Allen Craig in the seventh inning off Alexi Ogando (the same pitcher Craig had victimized in a similar spot in Game 1), breaking a scoreless tie.

With only six outs to secure, La Russa seemingly had one of his easier nights this postseason. With this bullpen, in this stadium, with these stakes, the 47,288 in attendance felt certain the Cardinals were on their way to another win and a commanding lead in the series. They never saw the Rangers’ rally coming. In a span of 15 minutes, the series was sent hurtling in an entirely new direction.

The Rangers’ rally in the top of the ninth began innocently enough, when Kinsler lifted a bloop single into shallow left off Motte, just over the head of Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal. To that point, Motte had been near-perfect in the postseason – nine innings, one hit, no walks, no runs.

With Motte paying little attention to him, Kinsler then stole second base, sliding in just ahead of Molina’s throw, then moved to third on Andrus’s line-drive single to right-center. Making matters worse for the Cardinals, Andrus, representing the go-ahead run, shrewdly took second when first baseman Albert Pujols botched the cutoff.

“That was an important extra base,” La Russa said. “Obviously, we don’t want the [trailing] runner to to second base. [The Rangers] did some good, classic baseball stuff to make two guys come around and score.”

Up came Hamilton, the hobbled, sore-groined slugger who has acknowledged being reduced by his injury to only 75 to 80 percent effectiveness. La Russa went to the mound, but didn’t immediately signal his move. His choices were to walk Hamilton — which would load the bases, but would also keep his best reliever, Motte, in the game to face a string of right-handed hitters — or bring in his remaining lefty, the veteran Rhodes, to face Hamilton.

La Russa went with Rhodes — more, he said, for the sake of preventing the trailing runner from moving up to third than to prevent to lead runner from scoring.

“I figured he’d stay with [Motte] to be honest — a guy that throws close to 100 [mph], rather than [Rhodes], who throws 89,” Hamilton said. “I don’t get paid to make those decisions, and I’m glad [La Russa] made that one.”

But Hamilton, swinging mostly from his upper body, was able to lift a flyball to medium-deep right field, a sacrifice fly that scored Kinsler and tied the game. Meantime, Andrus also was able to tag and advance to third.

Busch Stadium suddenly deflated, then came to life again when Young, facing the right-handed Lynn with the go-ahead run now on third, delivered another flyball of similar depth, this time to center field, as Andrus scored easily with the go-ahead run.

Three outs from Feliz later, the Rangers were celebrating on the Busch Stadium infield, and the Cardinals were slinking back to their clubhouse to confront a foreign and unwelcome feeling during what to that point had been a charmed postseason.