Now that's a storybook finish
ST. LOUIS -- Baseball can be the game of fables and fairy tales, the anticipatory lull between pitches sewing the fabric of our imaginations that run wild in backyards, cornfields and alleyways, anywhere there's a stick and a ball or a reasonable rendition thereof.
Few are so fortunate to live those daydreams, much less correctly imagine the professional uniform they will wear when their childhood fantasies play out on a perfectly manicured professional ball field, surrounded by nearly 50,000 screaming voices whose faith is tested with each pitch and catch.
David Freese is the lone Cardinals hitter with local roots, raised in a western St. Louis suburb where he idolized the local red-wearing nine. His favorite team now employed him, and it faced its final strike on two separate occasions Thursday night, not just the final strike of an inning or a game but of a World Series that many thought they wouldn't see this year.
Yet here the Cardinals sit, victors in one of the most dramatic championship-series games in the sport's century-plus history, having become the first team to score in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings of a World Series contest -- twice off the bat of the local hero, Freese -- that it would go on to win 10-9 to force a do-or-die Game 7 on Friday night.
"It's all about knowing that this is the game as when you're six years old," Freese said. "It's just elevated on a stage, and everyone is watching."
The realities of the game are so much harder than a child could ever imagine, a throng of critics there to document your success or failure and a fireballing closer's 98 mile-per-hour pitch humming faster through the air than through the fantasies of a young mind.
"When you're a little kid and you're out there, you don't have a bunch of reporters and fans that are ready to call you a choking dog if you don't come through," said Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman, who added his own heroics with a game-tying single in the 10th. "So when you're a kid, you don't realize what a big moment that is. I'm just going to caution all little kids out there, be careful what you wish for."
In the bottom of the ninth inning with Texas leading 7-5, Freese missed the first such offering from the Rangers' Neftali Feliz to fall behind in the count, one ball and two strikes on the at-bat and the season, when he got a second chance and crushed a ball to right field that barely escaped the glove of right fielder Nelson Cruz, colliding with the fence for a two-run, game-tying triple.
"Playing anywhere else that game is over right there," Berkman said. "That's a home run for sure in Texas, and in 99 percent of the ballparks in the league, that's the walk-off."
Surely in every young boy's dream, that bottom-of-the-ninth ball finds the hands of a bleacher-bound fan rather than remain in the field of play.
And most assuredly such a hit isn't preceded by an error so egregious that even a younger child wouldn't have made. A fifth-inning pop-up soared into the Busch Stadium night and fell to Freese's glove at third base, only to pop out and fall again, this time to the ground, an error that led to a run his team could ill afford to allow.
"A four-year-old would have used two hands," he said. "But you look at the scoreboard and there's four or five more innings left, and we're down one with a lot of game to play."
Little did he know his team would bat in seven more innings and that he would get not just the game-tying opportunity in the ninth inning, but a go-ahead chance in the 11th.
This time he faced a different Texas reliever, Mark Lowe, who worked the count full with a battery of fastballs and sliders before he ran up his first changeup of the at bat, which Freese crushed to center field for the game-winning home run.
It was a blast all-too-reminiscent of another Cardinals' extra-inning home run to win a postseason game: when Jim Edmonds did the same to win Game 6 of the NLCS in 2004, a game a fan like Freese had cataloged for automatic recall as he rounded the bases and drowned out everything else.
"I was running around the bases and Edmonds popped into my head, that moment, because I remember when did that in Game 6," he said. "But, seriously, growing up or whatever and you see stuff like that happen, those become memories."
Not in any of his many travels -- not his college, nor his junior college, nor his high school, not his Little League team -- had Freese ever done what he accomplished late in the cool Thursday night.
"I didn't hear much," he said. "When I rounded second, I was looking for my team. I've never had a walk-off home run in my life. Never. Ever. I've never met my team at home plate."
The other reality you don't consider as a child is the greeting you receive at the end of your trot. The jumping, cheering mob of teammates consumed the dirt around home plate, at which point Freese removed his helmet, spiked it through his legs and entered the fray.
By the time he exited it, one of the artifacts he'd be sending to the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with his bat, was two-thirds of his jersey, it having been ripped apart by teammates, the right sleeve missing and unaccounted for, thanks to the celebratory work of infielder Nick Punto.
"Hopefully it's around here somewhere," Freese said. "But, yeah, the Shredder. We've got an alter ego on this team, and he comes out every once in a while."
He's come out more than once for this resilient team that sat 10½ games out of the playoff picture with five weeks to play. It was so improbable a regular-season comeback that their manager said he'd have publicly kissed the rear of the man who promised an appearance on this stage back on the darkest February night when the club lost one of its two aces for the season. And then this game left a man in his 50th year of professional baseball at a loss to compare this game.
"What happened today, I just think you had to be here to believe it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Of course, there's one more obvious catch -- in the classic dream conjured by every child, the game-winning home run comes in Game 7 to win the championship.
"We've got one more game," Freese said. "I want to win the World Series. I hope we're the ones smiling 24 hours from now."