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Hail to the champs! Comeback Cards gave us a Series to treasure

ST. LOUIS -- Now it can be told what St. Louis manager Tony La Russa did at the end of his worst managing night in the big leagues. He didn't stop managing after World Series Game 5 ended, a game that had been so embarrassing for him that he twice could not properly communicate which reliever he wanted throwing in the bullpen, a breakdown that once left him standing on a World Series mound and greeting one of his pitchers by saying, "Oh, what are you doing here?"

After the 4-2 defeat that came to be known as Phonegate for La Russa's telephonic troubles, La Russa called a quick team meeting in the visitors clubhouse of Rangers Ballpark. His team was one loss away from the end of its season. His message could not wait for tomorrow, an off day.

"I'm telling you guys," La Russa told them, "just keep busting your butts and in a couple of days we'll be cracking champagne at home. And you guys deserve it. We cracked champagne in Houston, in Philadelphia and in Milwaukee. This is your year, and you deserve to celebrate at home in a couple of days."

Said outfielder Allen Craig, recalling La Russa's speech, "It was definitely the right thing to say at the right time. He made sure that we knew no matter what had just happened that it was like we were a team of destiny, and our destiny was to celebrate at home."

"It's why Tony is the best," hitting coach Mark McGwire said. "He has a reason for everything he does. And here we are, cracking champagne in St. Louis."

And Phonegate?

"It's all irrelevant now," McGwire said. "Phonegate is out the door now."

With a thoroughly underwhelming 6-2 victory in Game 7 -- at least against the backdrop of 32 pressure-packed days of the purest baseball drama a fan could hope to see -- the 2011 Cardinals cemented their place in history. Team of destiny? That shortchanges the extraordinary resolve of La Russa's gang. The Cardinals will go down as one of the great comeback teams in championship history. They proved they were more than just the "hot" tournament team, as can happen in this three-round playoff system. They were ferocious in rising to multiple challenges.

On Aug. 24, the Cardinals stood 10½ games out of a playoff spot with just the 12th-best record in the majors (67-63). On the last day of the season, they needed a win and a Braves loss just to get into the postseason. In the NLDS they needed to beat Roy Halladay and the Phillies in a sudden death game on the road. In the NLCS, they needed to beat the Brewers, baseball's best home team, in Milwaukee to win the pennant. Saving their greatest escape route for last, down three games to two against Texas, to win the world championship they needed to survive being one strike away from elimination not once, but twice.

There have been 107 World Series. Only the 1986 Mets and the 2011 Cardinals won the World Series after walking as close to the abyss as possible -- one strike away from losing it.

What these Cardinals and their gallant foils, the Texas Rangers, did was to elevate the World Series like it hasn't been in a decade. Albert Pujols gave us an individual performance to live for posterity with those of the Babe and Reggie. The two teams gave us the first Game 7 in nine years, breaking the longest such drought since the best-of-seven format was permanently installed in 1922. La Russa and Texas manager Ron Washington, with their 145 pitching changes throughout the postseason and their spasmodic usage of relievers, intentional walks and bunts, left managerial meat on the bones of every game to chew on. Every game seemed to have its own afterlife, a regular game of CSI World Series to get to the bottom of how a game was lost.

Above all, what the two teams gave us was the wonder of Game 6. It ranks with the Game 6 thrillers of 1975 and 1986 as among the most spectacular World Series games ever staged -- what it may have lacked in technical skill more than compensated for with an ebb and flow that was nearly dizzying. The game was a ratings phenomenon, picking up viewers with every twist and turn. Hour by hour did the ratings climb: 8.5, 11.7, 12.9, 13.2 and finally, after midnight, 15. Nobody complained that the four hours, 33 minutes of drama was too darn long.

The comeback Cards wiped out five different leads in the game. Texas found that holding them back was like trying to hold back water with your hands. David Freese won the MVP Award with two of the most clutch swings you will ever see in a World Series: a two-strike, two-run game-tying triple when an out meant a world championship for Texas, with the encore of the fourth walkoff homer when facing elimination, joining the Rushmore of series-saving homers by Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk and Kirby Puckett, Hall of Famers all.

"He's got ice in his veins," McGwire said. "I truly believe it's God-given. The ability to hit under pressure, either you have it or you don't. And he has it. What he is able to do with two outs and two strikes in pressure situations is unbelievable."

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Texas did score two runs in its first at-bat in Game 7, allowing for the possibility that somehow it might have recovered from the kick in the gut the previous night. But Freese -- with his third consecutive extra base hit that wiped out a lead or put St. Louis ahead -- immediately answered with a two-run double, and all life seemed to slowly leak out of the Rangers. You could virtually hear the will hissing out of them.

"I'll be honest," Texas reliever Mike Adams said, "we could have used an extra day to come back from that game. It took so much out of us. It was hard. I was spent from it and I only threw three pitches."

The continental divide of this series -- the point where the waters started flowing in different directions -- was when the Rangers held a 7-4 lead with five outs to go in Game 6 and the game in the hands of Derek Holland with closer Neftali Feliz behind him. At that juncture Craig smacked a home run, the start of an amazing stretch in which 12 of the next 20 Cardinals batters reached base and the team scored in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings as if purely on willpower.

Feliz was flattened by such a steamroller -- he had nobody on base with one out in the ninth holding a two-run lead and couldn't close the deal.

"It's only my second year closing," Feliz said. "I know there is another chance for me. The one I think about is the [Freese] hit in the ninth inning. I have to get over it. It already happened, so I have to forget it and move on."

Asked if thought he could pitch the 10th inning -- Washington asked journeyman Darren Oliver to close the World Series, a major reach given his usual role -- Feliz, who had thrown only 22 pitches, said simply, "It was the manager's decision."

Of course, the Cardinals came back on Oliver, even with two bench players and the pitcher's spot due to bat. This time Lance Berkman supplied the last-strike stay of execution with a base hit off Scott Feldman. Said Texas center fielder Josh Hamilton, "Watching the Cardinals, I feel like most teams must feel when they play us during the season: down by two or three runs, you know they are going to make a run."

"They did a good job fighting back and holding the lead," outfielder David Murphy said. "But it's hard not to think about last night [Game 6] and the way they beat us. They had to earn it and they did."

Well-earned is a fitting way to define this Cardinals championship. Like any champion, they had their share of synchronicity. As a second-place team that finished six games out of first place, they wound up with Game 7 of the World Series at home because of the NL win in the All-Star Game. Instead of sending Kyle Lohse to the hill for the ultimate game, the Cardinals made use of a timely rainstorm that wedged in another off day, making Carpenter, the ace, available for Game 7. There were the bushels full of walks issued by Texas pitchers -- "the difference in the series," Adams said. And let's not forget the accommodation of Atlanta, which suffered a collapse of historic proportions to allow the Cardinals to even dream about October in the first place. But every break meant nothing unless St. Louis could capitalize on it, and the Cardinals did at every turn. The Cardinals, like the 2010 Giants, were an average team in August that grew beastly down the stretch: 34-16 in their final 50 games, postseason included. They are a fitting champion -- hardworking, of modest payroll -- because of how these 32 days defined the inherit goodness of the sport.

Think about how baseball comsumed our consciousness over these 32 days. The Night of 162, when four games, three of them down to the last at-bat, decided the last two playoff spots. A record-tying 38 postseason games, including four sudden death games. A record-breaking 13 postseason games decided by one run.

Baseball pulled us in with no gimmickry. None of the top nine payrolls in baseball won a playoff series. The umpires did a solid job, sparing us more than a bleat here or there about instant replay. We had no controversies of large proportions, no egos run wild, no bulletin board quotes, no nonsense.

What brought us to the television and to the edge of our seats was just baseball. It's the best kind of baseball: the baseball you don't see coming. We spent the winter and a good part of the summer wondering who could stop the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox, with the Northeast Corridor heavyweights dominating coverage and spending.

But like an undersized horse coming on in the home stretch, the Cardinals came to the fore. Who saw Freese coming? Craig? Motte?

It's the best thing about baseball, isn't it? You spend all this focus on the teams and the players with money, and yet when the roulette wheel stops it is David Freese batting against Neftali Feliz on a 1-and-2 pitch and a 96 mph fastball speeding toward the plate with a world championship on the line. With one swing, a World Series is transformed, and the moment is eternal.