Friday October 28th, 2011

ST. LOUIS --- Nolan Ryan walked down a long hallway deep inside Busch Stadium moments after Game 6 of the World Series. His head was down. He was wearing a long black overcoat. He looked like he was going to a funeral.

Whether his Rangers are headed for a coronation or a funeral on Friday, no one knows. They could become the 1986 Red Sox. They could become the 1975 Reds.

How bleak does it look for Texas? Here are the facts: No road team has won Game 7 of the World Series in 32 years. Home teams are 8-0 in such games since the 1979 Pirates beat the Orioles in Baltimore. Texas' two best hitters this postseason -- Nelson Cruz (lifted in the 11th with a strained right groin) and Mike Napoli (who sprained his ankle in the fourth) -- are hurting, though both said after the game that they planned to play. The Texas bullpen, which was the first in World Series history to blow three saves in a game, is clearly gassed.

But the truth is, after the game the Rangers looked and sounded far from devastated in their clubhouse, where plastic sheeting covered the big screen TVs and was rolled up above their lockers, in anticipation of a champagne celebration that never happened. There was Michael Young, who had two costly errors, facing a big crowd reporters in front of his locker. ("It's been an exciting series," he said. "We'll have a chance to make it even better in Game 7.") There was Josh Hamilton in another corner, talking about how he and his fellow outfielders, during pitching changes, were already calling the game "a classic." There was Matt Harrison in the middle of the room, talking about his game plan for Game 7. ("I have to make good pitches when I need to," he said, "and throw my off-speed pitches for strikes.")

In what's been an ugly, preposterous, exhilarating and improbable World Series, it would be foolish to count out the Rangers.

On the surface the pitching matchup looks like a mismatch: Harrison, the starter in The Debacle that was St. Louis' 16-7 Game 3 rout in Arlington, will likely face Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who is 6-0 with a 2.03 ERA in playoff starts in St. Louis. But look closer: in his only career start on three days' rest, in Game 2 of the NLDS, Carpenter lasted just three innings, and though Harrison allowed five runs (three earned) on six hits in 3 2/3 innings his last time out, he was the victim of poor fielding and a bad call by first base umpire Ron Kulpa that was the first domino to fall in a disastrous fourth inning. Before running into bad luck against the Cardinals, Harrison, who posted a 2.99 ERA in 15 regular season starts on the road, was very good in playoff wins over the Rays and Tigers (he allowed four runs and struck out 12 in 10 innings).

The biggest concern for Texas? The bullpen, of course: Alexi Ogando has now walked seven in his last three outings and the struggles of closer Neftali Feliz, who left the ballpark without talking to reporters, continue. Ron Washington insisted after the game that he'll turn to Feliz again with the lead in the ninth, but will he get there with his depleted unit? Derek Holland will likely be the first one out of the bullpen, but the X-Factor will be C.J. Wilson, who threw 108 pitches on Monday but will be available in relief.

Meanwhile, Tony La Russa's bullpen has looked every bit as hittable. Lance Lynn gave up the back-to-back home runs to Adrian Beltre and Cruz in the seventh, Octavio Dotel gave up a key hit for a second straight game and closer Jason Motte served up the big 10th inning home run to Josh Hamilton. Who will the professor turn to with the game on the line? Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson are all available.

Of course this magical 2011 season had to come down to this, a winner-take-all Game 7 to decide one of the greatest Octobers ever. The Cardinals still need to win another game to complete their storybook comeback, though you wouldn't know it from the way the Cardinals celebrated on the field and the way the fans lingered on Market Street deep into the night. The scoreboard inside an empty Busch Stadium said SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT. Improbable as it is, there's still one game left --- and anything's still possible.

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