ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Cardinals capped a postseason nobody figured they'd be part of by defeating the Texas Rangers 6-2 Friday night in Game 7 of the World Series. The resilient Redbirds couldn't be vanquished.
In the waning days of August, St. Louis had a 0.2 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to AccuScore, a company that calculates probabilities by running thousands of game simulations. Expressed another way, the Cardinals faced 1 in 500 odds.
And that was to make the playoffs. Their chances of winning the World Series were minuscule, like a speck of Midwestern dust somehow reaching Manhattan or Malibu. It might have been the greatest comeback in baseball history.
The Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs the last day of the regular season, earning the wild-card berth primarily because the Atlanta Braves folded down the stretch. Once in, they proved they belonged, beating the Philadelphia Phillies in five division series games and the Milwaukee Brewers in six championship series games.
After falling behind three games to two in the World Series by losing Games 4 and 5 in Arlington, Texas, the Cardinals were on the brink of elimination. Twice in Game 6 they were down to their last strike, only to rally.
And Friday night in front of an adoring sellout crowd donned in red, the Cardinals celebrated the 11th Series championship in the storied history of the franchise. Talk about flying high.
Catcher Yadier Molina(notes) leaped into the arms of closer Jason Motte(notes). Albert Pujols(notes), playing perhaps his last game as a Cardinal because he will be a free agent, ran over from first base and joined what quickly became a joyous scrum.
"We believe in ourselves, from the bullpen to the starting pitchers to our offense," Pujols said. "When everyone was thinking we were done, we bounced back. It was incredible. A lot of things are going through my head, and a few weeks from now I'll sit down and say, wow, look how far we came."
David Freese(notes), the local St. Louis kid who was the hero of Game 6 and doubled in the first two runs in Game 7, was selected Most Valuable Player. Freese batted .348 with five extra-base hits in the Series and set an MLB record with 21 RBIs in the postseason.
"To win it is an incredible feeling," Freese said. "I'm just full of joy."
He wasn't alone. Manager Tony La Russa has taken teams to the postseason 14 times and is one of only two managers to win the World Series in both leagues. This was still special – especially after he was heavily criticized for questionable moves during the losses in Texas.
"It's truly a dream come true," he said. "It's hard to imagine it actually happened."
The game didn't live up to the forehead-slapping incredulity of the Cardinals' 11-inning Game 6 win. Then again, how could it? Allen Craig(notes), one of several unlikely stars who emerged this postseason, supplied the winning run in the third inning with his third home run of the Series. The Cardinals tacked on two runs without a hit in the fifth and another in the seventh.
Meanwhile, the Rangers went quietly for a change, losing consecutive games for the first time since Aug. 25 and losing the Series for the second year in a row. They were the team of gritty catcher Mike Napoli(notes), wispy-mustached left-handed pitcher Derek Holland(notes) and sluggers Josh Hamilton(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes) and Nelson Cruz(notes).
But they couldn't muster enough to beat the Cardinals in Games 6 or 7. A Series that began with both managers lauded for their quick hooks and liberal use of relievers ended with the Rangers' Ron Washington watching his bullpen become a Halloween house of horror.
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Starter Matt Harrison(notes) staggered through four innings, giving up three runs. Washington took a deep breath and went to Scott Feldman(notes), who promptly put himself in trouble by walking Craig and hitting Pujols with one out. Lance Berkman(notes) advanced the runners with a ground out, so Feldman walked Freese intentionally. But he gave Molina a free pass on a full count to force in a run and was replaced by C.J. Wilson(notes).
Wilson, the Rangers' ace who started Games 1 and 5, hit Rafael Furcal(notes) with his first pitch, extending the Cardinals' lead to 5-2. After all their slugging, they'd scored two pivotal runs without the benefit of a hit.
"One thing in this World Series that I'll look back on is it being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story," Washington said. "But, you know, when you're a champion you keep fighting, and St. Louis fought, came back … and they deserve it."
Meanwhile, Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter settled down after giving up two runs in the first inning and put up zeroes through the sixth. Starting on only three days rest for only the second time, he exited after David Murphy(notes) led off the seventh with a ground-rule double. The Cardinals' bullpen, shaky for days, did the job, tossing three scoreless innings.
This was the 11th World Series Game 7 played by the Cardinals. They've won eight, the first in 1926 with Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby serving as player-manager.
Combing through the list is a delightful exercise in bird-watching. Frankie Frisch and Pepper Martin led the 1931 seven-game title team. Dizzy Dean was a 30-game winner when they did it in 1934. The 1946 post-WWII champion was stocked with stars: Stan Musial, Marty Marion, Enos Slaughter and Red Schoendienst. The 1964 and '67 teams that needed seven games to win featured Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood. And the most recent seven-game series before Friday was 1982, manager Whitey Herzog's club that featured speedsters Ozzie Smith and Lonnie Smith, and Bruce Sutter out of the bullpen. (The Cardinals also the won the Series in 2006, but that went only five games.)
Baseball lore is a pleasure to revisit, and someday the manner in which the tail end of the 2011 season unfolded will be recounted in reverent tones.
Game 7 concluded one of the most entertaining stretches in baseball history. It began with the final day of the regular season, when the Red Sox and Braves culminated colossal collapses by losing their last games and their hold on the wild-card berths. The Rays eclipsed Boston by overcoming a seven-run deficit against the Yankees and winning in the 12th inning on Evan Longoria's(notes) home run. The Cardinals blanked the Astros and learned they'd made the playoffs two hours later when the Braves lost to the Phillies in 13 innings.
Game 7 also was the 38th game of the postseason, only three short of the maximum possible and equaling the record for the most games required to crown a World Series champion, set by the 2003 Florida Marlins. Three of the four division series went a maximum five games (the Rangers needed only four to beat the Tampa Bay Rays) and both championship series went six games.
[Y! Sports shop: Buy Cardinals title gear]
This was the fourth unforgettable Game 6 to lead to a Game 7 in recent memory. In two of the others, the crushing Game 6 loss led to a pitiable effort in Game 7, almost as if the players were unable to shake off the disappointment of getting close enough to taste a title only to be thwarted.
2002 Game 6: The Angels scored three in the sevnth on Scott Spiezio's home run and three in the eighth to overcome a 5-0 deficit. An error by left fielder Barry Bonds enabled Garret Anderson(notes) to advance to second, and he scored the winning run on a double by Troy Glaus(notes).
Game 7: The Giants were numb, seemingly beaten before they showed up at the park and the Angels won 4-1.
1986 Game 6: The Mets won with three runs in the bottom of the 10th, immediately after the Red Sox had taken a two-run lead, and the enduring memory is of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner letting a ground ball slip between his legs to allow the winning run to score.
Game 7: The Red Sox took a three-run lead in the second inning but couldn't sustain the energy, wilting in the last three innings and losing 8-3.
1975 Game 6: One of the most famous images in Series history is of Carlton Fisk willing his fly ball fair as it flew over the left-field wall in the 12th inning to give the Red Sox a 7-6 win over the Reds.
Game 7: The Reds refused to wilt, overcoming a three-run deficit with two runs in the sixth, one in the seventh and one in the ninth. Diehard Reds fans remember that Joe Morgan drove in Ken Griffey Sr. with a single in the top of the ninth for the deciding run. Everyone else remembers Fisk's blast a day earlier.
Early on Friday, it was like Game 6 never ended. The Rangers jumped on Carpenter immediately, scoring two runs in the first inning. The damage could have been worse except that Ian Kinsler(notes) was picked off first by catcher Molina after opening the game with a single. Andrus walked and Josh Hamilton and Michael Young(notes) followed with RBI doubles.
[World Series slideshow: Check out photos from Game 7]
And, of course, the Cardinals answered with two runs. Who had the big hit? Take three guesses, and the last two don't count: Yep, Freese doubled with two out to bring home Pujols and Berkman and tie the score. Freese had homered and tripled in his last two at-bats of Game 6.
"I'm trying to soak this all in," Freese said. "You have to because you never know if it's going to be your last attempt at a title. It's going to take a little bit to realize what we've accomplished.
"To win it is an incredible feeling."
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