ST. LOUIS -- The Texas Rangers spoke in funereal tones about not once, but twice standing one strike away from the first World Series championship in franchise history. As they spoke in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium Thursday night, the literal backdrop to the autopsy they performed on themselves was a cruel reminder of what was lost: a curtain of clear plastic sheeting left rolled up atop their lockers, the anticipatory protection from the champagne celebration that never came. This is Texas, a dry state.
There are World Series defeats, and then there are crushing losses that, like haunted spirits and bad dreams, never truly go away. World Series Game 6 threatens to become such infamy for the Texas Rangers because of the way they lost. They lost because of a simple breakdown in execution that should never have happened.
With one more Rangers loss, Nelson Cruz is the Bill Buckner of Texas.
There is a universal rule in baseball about playing the outfield with a lead, especially a two-run lead, and three outs or fewer from victory. Under no circumstance can the ball be hit over an outfielder's head -- not unless it's flying all the way out of the ballpark. It's called no-doubles defense. The outfielders have to station themselves deep enough to make sure the ball cannot get over their head.
This is how center fielder Josh Hamilton and left fielder David Murphy played the ninth inning. I saw Cruz early in the ninth inning playing too far in and said aloud, "He's not back far enough. A ball can get over his head."
Cruz's positioning was a non-issue until David Freese of the Cardinals swung at a 1-and-2 fastball from Neftali Feliz -- with two runners on and Texas one strike away from the world championship. Families of the Rangers had been ushered to a place near the Texas clubhouse an inning previous. The plastic sheeting was hung like stockings at Christmas.
And then there was Cruz, who was all that remained between the Rangers and the world title, peering up at the baseball. The ball was hit directly toward him. He reacted poorly initially, tried to recover, and drifted slowly. The ball hit not even near the top of the wall but the base of the wall. It was catchable. Both runners scored on what became a triple for Freese.
Can't happen. A ball cannot be hit over an outfielder's head in that situation, not even with a poor read. Can't happen. It's that simple.
Rangers coach Gary Pettis and manager Ron Washington both thought Cruz had positioned himself deep enough. Obviously that's not true or else the ball would not have carried over his head -- even with a moment of misjudgment.
"I thought he was in good position," Washington said. "He froze, and the ball took off. If he just takes the right route it's an easy out. You've got to stay behind the baseball and he didn't. I thought it was going to be caught. It didn't turn out that way."
Cruz had a different take. He knew where the mistake was. Asked if he could do anything different about the play if he had it to do all over again, he said he would have positioned himself deeper.
Freese won this ridiculous Pollack triptych of a baseball game with an 11th inning home run off somebody named Mark Lowe, the last of Washington's ill-fated choices. So ended 273 minutes of pure bedlam, a Marx Brothers production of a ballgame with its pratfalls, slapstick and low comedy. Eleven innings of baseball and only one of them passed without somebody scoring. Players fielded the ball, or not, as if it were lathered in Crisco.
Give the Cardinals credit. They haven't stopped fighting since they were 10½ games out of the playoffs in late August. There is a ferocity about this team that must be witnessed to be appreciated.
But make no mistake: the Rangers cannot a lose a ballgame -- not one in Kansas City in July, nevermind a potential World Series clincher -- by allowing a ball to go over an outfielder's head with two outs and a two-run lead in the ninth inning.
On the door to the Rangers' clubhouse, somebody before the game had taped a Photoshopped fake movie poster of Washington, clad in warrior gear and armed with a shield, sword and Rangers hat, under the title, "Prepare for Glory." Instead, the script went so horribly wrong that Washington had to do something that he had not done since June: he had to address his team after the game to keep it from falling apart.
Washington walked past the movie poster and said he told them, "The series is seven games. We busted our [butts] and they beat us. We didn't lose the series. There's a difference. We've got the same opportunity tomorrow that we had tonight. We're where we want to be."
Now there are only two paths left for the Rangers, both of which have the footprints of historic teams.
They can become the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Those Reds lost a torturous Game 6 on the road in Boston. That was the Carlton Fisk game. Indeed, Freese joined Fisk, Bill Mazeroski (1960), Kirby Puckett (1991) and Joe Carter (1993) as the only players to hit a World Series walkoff homer in Game 6 or later. Those are some of the most iconic home runs in baseball history, which tells you of the magnitude of Freese's blast.
But the Reds recovered from the cinematic Fisk homer -- recovered even from a 3-0 deficit heading into the sixth inning -- to win Game 7 on the road, 4-3.
There is one other option for the Rangers. They become the 1986 Red Sox, who also were one strike away from winning the world championship and never did get it back. Game 6 against the Mets was the Buckner game, the first baseman's error coming with the game tied to send home the winning run at Shea Stadium.
The Red Sox, as they did in 1975, took a 3-0 into the sixth inning of Game 7, only to have the Mets storm back and win, 8-5. Those Red Sox also were on the road -- part of a streak of eight straight losses by the visiting team in World Series Game 7s.
This one wasn't just a defeat. It was, Washington admitted, a game that breaks your heart.
"It does," he said. "But I understand how it goes. It's never over until you get the last out. I thought Cruz was going to catch it.
"Well, the series is seven games. We've got to play seven games."
• How competitive has this series been? The two teams have taken 109 turns at bat; 81 of them have begun with the teams tied or separated by one run.
• The Rangers paid the price for turning Neftali Feliz into just a one-inning closer. Darren Oliver had two lefties and the pitcher due up in the 10th with a two-run lead and couldn't close the game. But then, don't ask a setup guy like Oliver to close out a World Series championship. That's not his bag.
• The Rangers could be severely limited in Game 7. Cruz strained a groin in his 11th inning at-bat and Mike Napoli, who rolled his ankle, is bound to be much worse when he wakes up after that kind of injury.
• Mark Lowe? Really? Over C.J. Wilson? Game over.
• Washington let pitcher Colby Lewis bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth with a 4-3 lead against Fernando Salas. (He wrongly recalled it as a two-run lead.) He said Lewis was throwing too well to be lifted. He did put Yorvit Torrealba on deck as what he called "part decoy." But if you're going to use a decoy, at least use the right one. You put up somebody with a platoon advantage, such as left-handed Mitch Moreland. Having Torrealba against Salas is not going to influence anybody.
• Worth remembering again that Texas has played 46 consecutive games without losing two in a row, going 14-0 after losses.
• Something sure sounds wrong with a second-place team that finished six games out of first place getting Game 7 at home. The wild card team can't get home-field advantage in the first two rounds, but somehow it's OK in the most important round of all? Strange. The 1997 Marlins and 2002 Angels (against another wild card team) were wild card teams that won Game 7 at home.
• Memo to Texas: Only three AL teams ever have lost back-to-back World Series: the 1963-64 Yankees, 1921-22 Yankees and 1907-09 Tigers.
• The reputation of Matt Holliday sure has taken a hit. The guy made two Little League mistakes in Game 6: calling for another player to field a fly ball (shortstop Rafael Furcal) and getting picked off third base.
• Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, without any bullpen phone issues, managed an extraordinary game. He exhausted his bench by the eighth inning, he pinch hit a pitcher for a pitcher who was pinch hitting for a pitcher, he used five players out of the leadoff spot in his lineup and finished with only four players where they were when they started.
• Horrible decision by Washington and Lewis to bunt into a wheel play defense in the second inning. LaRussa forced the issue by charging both corner infielders with runners at first and second on two straight pitches. Lewis bunted into a double play, which you could see coming a mile away. Reading such a defense, Lewis needs to slash the ball there. Any ground ball in the middle of the diamond is a hit -- the shortstop is dashing toward third and the second baseman to first, leaving the middle uncovered.