ST. LOUIS — It was a strange calm that fell across Busch Stadium late Friday night, in the waning moments of one of the greatest World Series in recent memory, a sense of peace and prosperity that felt somehow out of place. After weeks of digging out of massive holes and clinging to life in the face of overwhelming odds, the St. Louis Cardinals were leading the Texas Rangers in the ninth inning of Game 7, and the usual anxiety was tinged with this foreign thought: What does one do when the last mountain is climbed?
The answer: You go crazy, folks.
And so, when the final out of a 6-2 victory was in the glove of the left fielder, and the World Series title was theirs, the Cardinals poured out of their dugout and out of their bullpen and converged near the mound, and a crowd of 47,399 screamed and hugged and bounced.
“It’s hard to imagine it really happened,” said Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa. “. . . It’s hard to explain how we made it happen, except the team has great guts — more talent than people believe, but we have great guts.”
Finally, there are no more hurdles for the Cardinals to overcome, no more frantic comebacks to stage, no more odds to defy, no more games to play. They had expended countless lives to get here, having been 101 / 2 games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 24, but never their last one. The Rangers, who twice failed to put them away at the end of the classic Game 6, will attest to the invincibility of the Cardinals’ zombie hearts.
“Last night after [Game 6], I said, ‘It’s over,’” said Cardinals veteran reliever Octavio Dotel. “One strike away, twice, and we came through? That’s why I said, ‘It’s over.’ And it was over.”
A series of impossible twists and incredible turns failed to produce a suitably epic Game 7 — the first Game 7 in the World Series in nine years — but the precision and skill with which the Cardinals took apart the shell-shocked Rangers was breathtaking nonetheless.
Ace Chris Carpenter pitched six solid innings, series MVP David Freese delivered a game-tying, two-run double, Allen Craig smashed the go-ahead homer in the third, and the Cardinals were content to let the Rangers implode during a pivotal fifth-inning sequence when St. Louis scored two insurance runs without so much as a hit.
While Freese was a deserving MVP, this World Series will also be recalled just as strongly for its impact on the legacies of the Cardinals’ two most visible members, La Russa and slugger Albert Pujols. With one glaring exception — his shocking bungling of Game 5, with its comical series of bullpen-phone mishaps — La Russa produced perhaps the finest managing job of his Hall-of-Fame career, consistently outmaneuvering his opponent.
La Russa “deserves all the credit,” Freese said. “He rallies the troops. He’s got a plan with every thought, with everything he says.”
For Pujols, his second World Series championship as a Cardinal only serves to strengthen the link between himself and his franchise, no small matter as he approaches free agency for the first time at age 31.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Pujols said when asked about free agency. “I’m thinking that we’re the world champions… You never know when it’s going to be your last [title], so I’m going to enjoy this like I did my first one.”
As Pujols came to bat in the seventh, flashbulbs popped from all corners of Busch Stadium, hundreds of amateur historians hoping to record what could have been his final at-bat in the classic red-on-white uniform of the Cardinals. Pujols struck out, and he would be left in the on-deck circle at the end of the eighth.
Having led the series, 3-2, entering Game 6, the Rangers picked an inopportune time to notch their first back-to-back losses since Aug. 24-25. As for losing back-to-back World Series, no team had done that since the 1991-92 Atlanta Braves. They will have a long winter to attempt to wrap their heads around the fact they were twice one pitch away from winning the World Series in Game 6, only to blow both leads and lose in 11 innings.
“If there’s one thing that happened in this World Series that I’ll look back on, [it] is being so close – just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said, “and it could have been a different story.”
Carpenter, making his 40th start of the season but only the second of his career on short rest, won for the second time in three starts during the series, pushing his career playoff record to 9-2. The first four Rangers batters of the game reached base against him in the first, but Carpenter escaped with only two runs scoring, and the Rangers would not score again.
“I felt like as the game went on, I got stronger,” Carpenter said. “My stuff got better, my command got better, and I was able to make some really good pitches when I had to.”
A reconfigured Cardinals lineup dealing with the sudden absence of regular cleanup hitter Matt Holliday — who was dropped from the roster Friday after spraining his wrist in Game 6 — got along just fine without him. It was Craig, who replaced Holliday in left field, who untied the game in the third inning with a solo, opposite-field homer off Texas starter and loser Matt Harrison, Craig’s fourth go-ahead RBI of the series.
“It’s history – that’s what Tony’s been saying this whole ride,” Craig said. “Just what we did to get here was improbable and unbelievable. [But] when your manager is Tony La Russa, and he’s telling you you made history, you can appreciate it.”
The Cardinals’ two runs in the fifth were practically gift-wrapped by the Rangers, as Scott Feldman and C.J. Wilson combined to walk three batters and plunk two others (including Pujols on an 0-2 count).
The key to the inning was Texas Manager Ron Washington’s decision to intentionally walk Freese with first base open — the ninth intentional walk issued by the Rangers in this series — to load the bases for Yadier Molina, whom Feldman promptly walked on a borderline 3-2 fastball. Wilson, the Rangers’ starter in Games 1 and 5, entered and immediately hit Rafael Furcal with his first pitch, forcing in another run. Suddenly, it was 5-2, Cardinals.
It was Wilson who, 31 / 2 months ago, gave up the three-run homer to Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder in the fourth inning of the All-Star Game, sending the NL to a victory — which is how Game 7 of the World Series came to be played in St. Louis instead of Arlington, Tex., and, by extension, how the Cardinals became the ninth consecutive home team to prevail in Game 7 of the World Series.
When Craig took away a potential home run from Adrian Beltre with a leaping catch at the wall, helping Carpenter through a 1-2-3 sixth inning, the Cardinals were nine outs away from the title. And when Carpenter gave up a leadoff double in the seventh to David Murphy, La Russa yanked him — finally stopping Carpenter’s 2011 odometer at 2731 / 3 innings and 4,155 pitches — and initiated the nightly parade of mix-and-match relievers from his bullpen.
Lefty Arthur Rhodes recorded the first of those remaining nine outs. Right-hander Dotel was good for two. Lance Lynn breezed through his three batters in the eighth. Finally, closer Jason Motte entered for the top of the ninth, the entire stadium on its feet, the Cardinals’ infielders kicking anxiously at the dirt.
“Standing at first base, three outs left, and I’m just thinking about everything we’ve been through,” Pujols said. “. . . To be able to bring another championship to city of St. Louis is just amazing.”
A flyout, a groundout. And then the final pitch of the night, to David Murphy, sent a flyball to left, which almost perfectly traced the parabola of the Gateway Arch that stood in the distance. It settled into Craig’s glove — nine up, nine down for La Russa’s bullpen — and the Cardinals were champions for the 11th time in franchise history.
“It’s something we couldn’t have imagined eight weeks ago,” General Manager John Mozeliak said.
For these Cardinals, the feeling of standing at the pinnacle was a foreign one, given their day-to-day existence of pure survival-mode. You could even put a number on the improbability of their rise: At the end of play on Aug. 27, the computer-simulation Web site coolstandings.com calculated the Cardinals’ odds of making the playoffs at 1.1 percent.
In other words, at that instant, the Cardinals were 98.9 percent dead. But somewhere within the tiny, floundering organism that was their season, a faint heartbeat remained. And as the Rangers and all of baseball now understand, the Cardinals are never dead until it is silenced.