ST. LOUIS – Nobody in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform wanted to move, not even an inch. Superstition casts a spell on baseball unlike any other sport. When all goes well, you drink the same drink, chew the same gum and wear the same underwear, lest the baseball gods smite your good fortune. And should you happen to bear witness to the wildest, most rollicking and, some will argue, greatest game in the 150 or so years they've played this sport, go ahead and talk, cheer, clap, bellow and bray. Just don't leave your lucky seat.
They had them on the bench looking out to Game 6 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, and they had them up the steps and down the hall, in the sports bar. That's what the Cardinals call the rectangular room that houses their video equipment. During the game, every hitter drops by at least once. They plop down in one of the nine red swivel chairs. Some study their at-bats on the four computer monitors. Others watch the pitcher live on the six flat screen TVs hung on the walls. Stacks of servers overloaded with video clips buzz in the background. And Aldo is always there to greet them with a smile and a shot of confidence.
David Freese(notes) had stopped by earlier, and Aldo – that's Mike Aldrete, the Cardinals' co-hitting coach – bumped fists with him. Neither said anything. The game was in the 11th inning, and twice already the Cardinals had done the impossible, and now everybody was glued to his lucky seat, and no way were they wrecking this thing. Aldo in one corner. Chad Blair, the Cardinals' video coordinator, next to him. Matt Holliday(notes) forming a scalene triangle. Lance Berkman(notes) off to the side. Ben Bultmann and Isaiah Honick, video assistants, in the opposite corner. Not moving. Never moving.
Because Freese was up, and the count was 3-2, and Mark Lowe(notes) was pitching, and he left a changeup over the heart of the plate, and Freese swung. The room was silent, no audio accompanying the video feed. The ball started to climb. The TV camera focused on the resignation in center fielder Josh Hamilton's(notes) legs, which went from a churn to a jog.
"Did he do it?" Berkman said first.
"Did he do it?" Holliday followed.
"He did!" someone said. They're not sure who. Maybe all of them. All they remember is running. A dead sprint out through the door, up the hall, down the stairs and onto the field, where the lucky-seat adhesive had dissolved and everyone in a white uniform was pouring onto the field to await Freese at home plate and celebrate the 10-9 victory that gifted the Cardinals another shot at their 11th championship, fans the pleasure of the first World Series Game 7 in nearly a decade and history a game that stacks up every bit with those defined by Thomson, Mazeroski, Fisk, Dent, Buckner and Carter.
Unlike any of those, this one came with the Rangers twice being within one strike of the first championship in their 51-year history. One swing and miss in the ninth inning, one looking in the 10th, a ground ball or fly ball or popup or force out in either of them, and Texas goes wild. Instead, apoplexy grabbed Busch Stadium and shook it with vigor, a reward for those who stuck around to watch their Cardinals to the very end, an end that felt inevitable in the seventh inning when a smattering of fans started to head toward the exit to beat traffic.
[World Series slideshow: Check out photos from thrilling Game 6]
The Cardinals – the Zombie Cardinals, whose litany of left-for-dead moments may well merit a cameo on "The Walking Dead" – watched Freese provide the first Texas gut-punch in the bottom of the ninth when he laced a two-run triple off Rangers closer Neftali Feliz(notes) to tie the score 7-7. And after Josh Hamilton followed with his own hero moment minutes later with a two-run homer, the Cardinals manufactured a run before Lance Berkman dropped a broken-bat single off Scott Feldman(notes) to score a second run and tie it at 9. And following a scoreless half-inning for Texas in the 11th, up stepped Freese, the hometown kid and National League Championship Series MVP who before the triple had struggled in the World Series. At 11:39 p.m. CT, four hours, 33 minutes after Jaime Garcia(notes) threw the first pitch, Freese hit the game's last one on to the grass past the center-field fence. He remembers seeing ushers trying to keep fans from running to capture the ball. As if.
Freese reached home plate and entered a mosh pit of delight. Off came his jersey almost immediately courtesy of Nick Punto(notes), the infielder nicknamed Shredder for his delight in celebratory uniform disfigurement. Eventually, the piece of the jersey with Freese's name and number on the back – the entire right sleeve went AWOL – made its way into a plastic bag. His bat was wrapped in a sanitary sock. The Hall of Fame wanted them. Freese obliged.
All he needed was the ball, and a 39-year-old radiologist named Dave Huyette returned it in exchange for a bat signed by Freese and a ball signed by the team. He had eluded the ushers much like the Cardinals had elimination, and the chaos of the night started to resonate for Freese only when he held what instantaneously became one of the most famous balls in World Series history.
"You had to be here to believe it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "We never quit trying. I know that's kind of corny, but the fact is we never quit trying. The dugout was alive even when we were behind, and sometimes it works."
Not like this. Never like this. The previous five games, each compelling in their own fashion, had built into heightened expectations for Game 6, particularly after rain delayed its start for 24 hours. And then, over the first six innings, came five errors of varying comedic impact, perhaps none worse than Freese botching a pop-up at third base that ricocheted off his glove and glanced off his head.
"I felt like I was part of a circus out there bouncing balls off the top of my hat a little bit," he said. "But man, I just wanted an opportunity."
The Cardinals seemed determined to fritter all of theirs away. Adrian Beltre(notes) and Nelson Cruz(notes) hit back-to-back home runs in the seventh, and an Ian Kinsler(notes) RBI single later that inning pushed Texas ahead, 7-4. St. Louis managed a run in the eighth on an Allen Craig(notes) home run and loaded the bases before a weak Rafael Furcal(notes) groundout left them stuffed for the second time in three innings.
On came Feliz for the ninth. The 23-year-old, with his 99-mph fastball, hadn't allowed a hit since Oct. 10. Albert Pujols(notes), in what could have been his last at-bat with the Cardinals as free agency beckons, hit a one-out double. Berkman walked. Craig watched a knee-buckling slider for a third strike. Freese followed with a line drive that whizzed past the outstretched arm of right fielder Nelson Cruz. The stadium palpitated, Freese its defibrillator.
Hamilton's home run vacuumed the energy out of the place, and all of St. Louis, which had fallen in love with this team over an epic seven-week run during which they went from also-rans to frontrunners. A double-digit wild-card deficit to Atlanta on Aug. 25? Gone. Sneaking into the postseason on the season's brilliant final day? Naturally. The favored Philadelphia Phillies in the first round? Vanquished. The Milwaukee Brewers, who cruised past the Cardinals by six games in the NL Central for the pennant? Adios. To think it would end like this, after Freese put reality on tilt and kicked dirt on probability, felt mistaken, incomplete, unfair.
And wrong, it turned out, with the 41-year-old Darren Oliver(notes) coming on to protect the 9-7 advantage. Over Oliver's 18-year career, he had recorded five saves. Two came this year. Left-handers were hitting .227 against him this year, and the first two batters, Daniel Descalso(notes) and Jon Jay(notes), were lefties. Descalso ripped a single to right field. Jay flared a single to left. Instead of batting pitcher Edwin Jackson(notes), the best hitter available – La Russa had used all his position players – the Cardinals went with pitcher Kyle Lohse(notes), the superior bunter. He advanced Descalso and Jay. Rangers manager Ron Washington replaced Oliver with Scott Feldman, a starter, who induced a run-scoring ground ball from Ryan Theriot(notes) for the second out. Washington intentionally walked Albert Pujols, the winning run, to face Berkman, who had homered in the first inning.
Feldman worked Berkman to a 1-2 count and missed just inside with a 94-mph cutter. It was the second pitch of the night that could've ended the game. The third was a 93-mph cutter that caught more of the plate. Berkman feathered it into center field, and Jay rumbled home to ensure their season wouldn't end in the 10th.
"Those two [game-saving] at-bats were epic and historic as far as Cardinal lore," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "That sort of epitomizes this club and how we played this year. No matter what, if we're down to our last strike, we don't quit."
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: 'Epic' victory for Cardinals]
Inside the sports bar, they ground their teeth and frayed their nerves. Holliday was there after leaving the game with a bruised right pinky that trainers initially thought was broken. Berkman retired to the room because his back started to seize up as the evening chill descended. Aldrete, the 10-year journeyman who joined the Cardinals' coaching staff in 2008, spends almost every minute of every game in front of video screens, directing positive vibes through the walls and toward the dugout.
"Other than that," he said, "we're just rooting our ass off."
So when they tromped out of the sports bar, drunk on life, and bounded up the dugout steps onto the field, they felt the pervasive euphoria. Aldrete had seen Freese struggle with consistency and injuries, his overwhelming talent always whacked by a scythe. The 28-year-old Freese quit baseball after high school, picked it up at a junior college, moved on to tiny South Alabama, got drafted as a college senior by San Diego and came to St. Louis in Mozeliak's first trade for Jim Edmonds(notes), whose walkoff homer in Game 6 of the 2004 NLCS was a touchstone for the franchise as well as Freese.
Once Punto finished his shredding, everyone else descended for hugs. Mark McGwire, St. Louis' other hitting coach, leaned in first. Freese then locked eyes with Aldrete.
"Give me a hug, Aldo," he said.
The hugs continued as long as warranted, no matter the emotional, physical, mental drain that bedeviled the Cardinals. Games like Thursdays, as invigorating as they feel, run on adrenaline. The team whose tank empties first loses. The Cardinals' gaslight was on. As much as they had conditioned themselves for games like this, a third comeback might have been one too many.
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That, see, is why it's fair, despite the unsightliness of the first six innings, to put this game alongside the all-time greats. Argue away how this compares to championship-winning home runs from Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, the Shot Heard Round the World by Bobby Thomson, Bucky Dent's one-game-playoff kill shot or Bill Buckner's all-time error. For now, perhaps it's best alongside Carlton Fisk's wave-it-fair home run that came in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, an iconic moment with a yet-to-be-determined denouement. His Boston Red Sox would lose Game 7 to the Cincinnati Reds.
"If we don't win tomorrow, this becomes a nice footnote to a season," Berkman said. "If you win tomorrow, this is the stuff of legends."
The encore inevitably will be a letdown, though a World Series Game 7 is the sort of letdown they serve in heaven. The St. Louis Cardinals ensured that slice of baseball perfection with a night that kept giving, the golden goose of games. When it ended, joy suffused the air, not just in St. Louis but everywhere they love baseball. The Cardinals' lucky seats, it turned out, begat something even better than a win.
One more game for everything.
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