Twice a strike from a title, Rangers mull Game 7

ST. LOUIS – The first one followed a ball and two strikes, and it was a fastball, outer edge.

The second chased two balls and two foul balls, and it was a cut fastball, inside.

Neither made it to Mike Napoli's(notes) mitt.

David Freese's(notes) home run in the 11th inning cut the Texas Rangers deep on Thursday night in Game 6 of the World Series. It ended four hours and 33 minutes of agony and euphoria, of towel-waving, Budweiser theme-song rockin', forehead-slapping agony and euphoria, beat the Rangers, 10-9, and obliged a Game 7 on Friday night.

But for all the pitches they threw and fed on – 393 in all – the Rangers could only muster emotion – let's say regret – for two.

Either could have ended the game, the season, the World Series, and a half-century's exertion.

"We were one strike away, twice," Napoli said. "We had it there, right in front of us."

Two pitches. Two two-strike pitches. Napoli reached for them both, blinked at the flash of the bat, begged for them to have arrived when he opened his eyes, and instead watched them soar away.

"It hurts," Napoli said. "But, we gotta let this go."

As the St. Louis Cardinals tried vainly to articulate unfathomable rallies from three runs down in the seventh, from two down in the ninth and from two back in the 10th, failures in any of which would have brought elimination, the Rangers searched for a few spare square inches of breath.

[Related: David Freese leads Cardinals to epic Game 6 win]

They had gotten a two-run lead and the ball to their closer, Neftali Feliz(notes), in the ninth inning, had watched him pull to within a strike of a championship, then left the field in a tie.

An inning later, following Josh Hamilton's(notes) two-run home run, they'd entrusted veteran Darren Oliver(notes) and Scott Feldman(notes) to the last pitch, had Feldman sneak up on the infield dog-pile, and again could not win.

By the time Freese finished them, the Rangers knew only that they'd had their chances, that a championship would have to wait a day, or never come. In their clubhouse, attendants had eyed rolls of plastic held by duct tape over each locker. Twice they'd been prepared to unfurl the protective covers, and twice they'd moved on to other work.

"We can talk about it all night," Oliver said. "But it didn't happen. We could go round and round on this all night."

Presumably, a few will. Feliz, the young closer, could not be coaxed into addressing the media. He hid in the food room instead, away from his teammates and his failure.

[World Series slideshow: Check out photos from thrilling Game 6]

He had struck out Ryan Theriot(notes) to start what surely would be the beginning of the parade route, one that ran down Clark Street in St. Louis all the way to Nolan Ryan Expressway in Arlington. Albert Pujols(notes) doubled, however. Lance Berkman(notes) walked on four pitches. When Allen Craig(notes) struck out and Feliz went ball-strike-strike on Freese, the end for the very game Cardinals seemed very near.

"Feliz throws 98," Napoli said. "Fastball away. [Freese] got his barrel to the ball and he got a hit, you know?"

The fastball was on the outside corner. Freese hit it off the right-field wall. Amazingly, when the only thing that could beat the Rangers was an extra-base hit, the ball carried over right fielder Nelson Cruz's(notes) head. He wasn't deep enough. And he thrust his glove tentatively toward the wall, looking very much like an outfielder in a strange ballpark. Pujols and Berkman crossed the plate. The score was tied 7-7.

"I saw it pretty well," Cruz said. "I thought I had a shot. It just kind of took off."

In 17 previous postseason appearances, Feliz had not blown a save chance. His ERA had been 1.02.

"I mean, it's baseball," Oliver said. "You can't be perfect every time. He had a hiccup in Game 6 of the World Series. Tough time to happen. But, it happens."

[Related: Cardinals' Game 6 win could be best ever]

Hamilton came along to bail him out. Homerless in the postseason since Game 3 of the 2010 World Series, he came to the plate in the 10th inning with a runner on base against Cardinals closer Jason Motte(notes). On the way to the batter's box, Hamilton said, God spoke to him.

"He said, 'You haven't hit one in a while and this time you're going to,' " he explained. "But there was a period at the end of that. He didn't say, 'You're going to hit it and you're going to win.' "

The ball left the park in right-center field. The Rangers led 9-7. Rangers manager Ron Washington thrust his fists over his head and bounced on the top step. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's chin hit the front of his red jacket.

Hamilton – and the Rangers – had not trailed since the top of the second inning. They had pushed ahead, watched the Cardinals rally, pushed again, and watched the Cardinals rally again. They'd gone ahead by three runs in the seventh, when Adrian Beltre(notes) and Cruz homered back-to-back, then Ian Kinsler(notes) padded the lead with a two-out single.

They appeared to have summoned all that they were this season, and all they had learned last October, to finish the stubborn wild-carders from the National League. When that was gone in the ninth inning, they'd merely returned to that same well, drew up another bucket, and put away the Cardinals again.

[Y! Sports Shop: Buy Rangers and Cardinals playoffs gear]

"We thought we had it done," Rangers icon Michael Young(notes) said. "Obviously, we have to get the final out."

Another waited.

This first two Cardinals in the 10th inning singled against Oliver and pinch-hitter Kyle Lohse(notes) – La Russa had run out of position players by then – bunted them into scoring position. Theriot drove in a run with a ground out, the second out, this one against Feldman. The Rangers could face Pujols with the right-hander Feldman, or walk Pujols and face Berkman – left-handed.

"That was pretty much a no-brainer," Feldman said. "Berkman's a good hitter. Albert's a different kind of animal."

He walked Pujols, putting runners at first and second, and pitched to Berkman.

Foul ball-ball one-foul ball-ball two.

Napoli, behind the plate, asked for a cut fastball, which, in theory, would target Berkman's bat handle. Berkman would have to get the bat head out fast, stay inside the ball, push it to the big part of the field.

Once again a strike away, Feldman threw the pitch.

"I would have liked it to be more in," he said.

"In a perfect world," Napoli said, "yeah, in a little more."

Berkman hit it into center field. A run scored, the score was tied 9-9.

In the clubhouse, after the Freese homer, Rangers public relations man John Blake shouted announcements.

Cruz was found to have a strained right groin, suffered in his final at-bat, Blake said. Cruz later said he expected to play in Game 7.

Several minutes later, Blake yelled, the X-rays on Napoli's left ankle were negative. Napoli had injured the ankle on an awkward lunge into second base.

"It's pretty sore," Napoli reported. "We'll try to do everything we can to get the swelling down and get me out there."

[Related: The story of the Cards fan who returned David Freese's homer]

In the corridor outside, Rangers players' family members leaned against a cement wall. Most stared at the floor, trying to comprehend.

They'd all been so close.

Those men in that clubhouse, they'd won that game a thousand times, then lost it a thousand-and-one. Make it a thousand-and-two.

On the door leading from the clubhouse, through which they would have passed nearly five hours before, there was taped a sheet of paper. On it, Washington's head had been photo-shopped onto a warrior's body. He was standing in a battlefield, a bloody sword in one hand and a shield in the other. Standing in a mass of bodies, he was screaming.

"Prepare for Glory, Texas Rangers," it read.

That close was the glory. All they needed was one more head.

One more strike.

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