The Cardinals Finish Coming From the Brink to Valhalla

Nelson Cruz’s walkoff grand slam in Game Two of the American League Championship Series? Gone with his other eight postseason record-tying bombs. Ian Kinsler’s theft of second, channeling Dave Roberts, to spark a World Series-tying rally in the first place? You won’t even find it on the police blotter now. The Rally Squirrel? Who the hell needed him?

Albert Pujols channeling Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson in Game Three? Fuggedabouddit. Derek Holland’s masterpiece pitching in Game Four of the World Series? Prove it. (And those were the two events that helped turn this World Series from good to great in the first place.)

Tony La Russa’s Game Five bullpen bollix, asking for Jason Motte when the party on the other end of the phone heard Lance Lynn, and La Russa ended up with Mark Rzepczynski having to face lefty-feasting Mike Napoli? What bollix? What tiebreaking two-run double?

Game Six placed them all under the wipeout cloth, from the St. Louis Cardinals’s two down-to-the-last-strike game tyers to David Freese’s first-pitch eleventh-inning walkoff bomb. Then Game Seven put the cloth down and wiped all the rest of it clean into oblivion. All of it except the Cardinals hoisting a World Series trophy nobody was willing to bet they’d even see on television when August began.

A championship snow of confetti in Busch Stadium . . .

When the World Series was getting underway, I marveled sadly at the apparent lack of enthusiasm New York seemed to show for the silver anniversary of the 1986 Mets—they who were down to their final strike of the Series until a pair of shaky relievers allowed them to tie it up and a shaky grounder skipped through the ankles of a first baseman playing entirely on heart.

Those Mets got topped by this year’s St. Louis Cardinals in two ways: 1) The Cardinals were anything but runaway division winners. 2) Those Mets were down to their final Series strike once, in the tenth inning of Game Six. These Cardinals in their Game Six were down to their final strike twice, in the ninth and the tenth, before Freese the hometown kid—whose two-run triple on strike two in the bottom of the ninth started the surreality—finished what he started by hitting Mark Lowe’s first eleventh-inning service over the center field fence.

Now, let’s be real here. Game Seven wasn’t even half as surreal as Game Six, for which the Rangers might be grateful enough in time. Or maybe not. A team who went into the World Series as 1000-to-1 favourites to win it came out of it as dead ducks, with Freese himself starting their misery all over again in the bottom of the first Friday night, after the Rangers opened with a 2-0 lead off a surprisingly shaky Chris Carpenter.

Not that they thought they had it made, exactly, when Josh Hamilton and Michael Young hit back-to-back RBI doubles in the top. But when Freese batted with two on and two out in the bottom, and lined a two-run double to the left center field warning track, it was as if the kid nobody knew at season’s beginning was suddenly man of the house in Busch Stadium, letting the Texas boys know they weren’t dealing with a bunch of pushovers anymore. If they ever were.

“I’ve never been with a group of guys who had the will to come back the way [our team] did,” said Berkman after the game, the aging veteran who looked washed up last winter, after we only thought he’d had his final shot at postseason glory as a non-waiver trade Yankee, after he’d been part of a Houston Astros team overmatched by the 2005 Chicago White Sox. “We felt pretty good (after Game Six), but when you win a game like that the adrenaline carries over.”

And when these Cardinals—these scrappers who seemed to believe that one out was a nuisance, two outs a challenge, and two strikes the moment to separate the men from the boys—got into a Ranger bullpen that wasn’t supposed to be as skittish as it looked in the final Series rounds, they almost didn’t even have to try any rough stuff. The Rangers proved more than willing to hand them the insurance policy, in the fifth inning, when Scott Feldman presented Yadier Molina with a bases-loaded walk and C.J. Wilson relieved him to hit Rafael Furcal on the leg with his first pitch.

Did anybody even think about telling the Rangers to bear down and get the runs fast because Carpenter didn’t look like his usual no-nonsense self for the first two innings? Inexplicably, Carpenter seemed almost entirely reliant on a fastball that turned into a grapefruit, leaving his formidable breaking balls somewhere in the back of his mind. He had to dispatch Napoli the hard way in the top of the second, after Napoli hit a fat pitch on a line to left before throwing the Texas catcher out himself on David Murphy’s bouncer to the third base side of the mound.

Somehow, in the middle of Texas starter Matt Harrison bunting Murphy to second—maybe the only time the Rangers bunted as if they knew what they were doing—and Kinsler taking a four-pitch walk before barely escaping a second pickoff (he’d been picked clean after opening the game with a base hit), before Elvis Andrus grounded out back to the mound, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan got through to Carpenter and reminded him about his own big breaking balls and their proclivity toward finding the right edges of the strike zone, even a zone as narrow as plate umpire Jerry Layne’s seemed to be.

Carpenter took the reminder to heart and had his way with the Rangers for the rest of his evening’s work. The concurrent problem was the Cardinals having their way with the Rangers, and it only began with Allen Craig, the supersub, who could have been the Series MVP had it not been for Freese’s tenth-dimension heroics, and was starting Game Seven in place of injured Matt Holliday, took a full-count pitch over the right field fence with one out in the bottom of the third.

And that belt, which put the Cardinals ahead to stay as things turned out, didn’t hurt even half as much as what Craig did in the top of the sixth, leaping over the left field fence to pull Cruz’s certain home run back over the rail for the out that might have broken the Rangers’ backs once and for all.

First, he hit one out; then, he stole the other guy's bomb . . .

When the Rangers couldn’t cash in Murphy’s seventh inning-opening ground rule double, the Cardinals added insult to injury in the bottom of the inning, with Mike Adams on the mound for Texas and Lance Berkman (infield single) and Freese (walk) aboard and Molina nudging one up the pipe for the RBI single, Berkman scoring amidst an almost inexplicable cutoff on the throw in from center.

“We beat a heckuva team,” Freese said graciously after it was over and he’d been named the Series MVP, right on the heel of winning the National League Championship Series MVP. “Those guys fight and fight and fight.” He was too polite, too disbelieving in his own feats of derring-do, to allow the thought that the Cardinals had taken the fight out of the Rangers at last.

“Sometimes,” lamented Rangers manager Ron Washington, “when the opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can’t let it get away. Being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, it could have been a different story. But when you’re a champion, you keep fighting . . . We got beat by a good club.”

Unfortunately, the Rangers also got beaten by themselves. It wasn’t a terrific idea to go to the no-doubles defence a second time, in the tenth inning of Game Six, after Freese burned them in that defence in the ninth, making Cruz look like the Series goat when he couldn’t reach far enough to stop Freese’s drive from banging off the right field wall.

It wasn’t a terrific idea for Washington to order an intentional walk to Freese with men on second and third in the fifth, setting up the RBI walk to Molina and the bases-loaded plunk to Furcal.

It wasn’t a terrific idea to order Andrus to bunt after Kinsler’s leadoff single in the top of the fifth, not his usually fly early-order men hitting, only to watch in horror as Hamilton’s popup on the foul side of third base ended up in Freese’s glove when the third baseman leaned over the rail and held onto the ball as he hit the ground.

But it was nobody’s fault that Neftali Feliz, the Texas closer who came into Game Six without ever blowing a postseason save, picked the wrong night to blow his first such save opportunity, or that the Rangers’ bullpen—which included three starters—spent the final two games working eight and two-thirds innings, allowing fourteen hits including two bombs, walking eight, hitting two, surrendering eight runs, and blowing two leads that should have given the Rangers their franchise-first World Series rings.

And why wasn’t C.J. Wilson—who’d have been going on three days’ rest with the rain delay that pushed Game Six back a night, and who pitched five and a third in Game Five surrendering only one earned run—on the mound to start Game Seven instead of Harrison, who couldn’t get out of the fourth inning in Game Three? Holland might have been available on near-regular rest, too, except that Washington had begun to doubt his regular bullpen bulls in Game Six. He got a brilliant two innings’ relief out of Holland Thursday night but that, too, might have helped cost him too dearly in the end.

Washington insisted on staying in rotation, but that may have helped cost him a World Championship he still had a chance to win. La Russa read the rain delay as an opportunity to send his best starter out for Game Seven and it helped him win a World Championship.

And when Jason Motte turned the Rangers away in the ninth—you can’t say he did it quietly, considering the Busch Stadium racket—getting Cruz on a lazy fly to right center, getting Napoli on a big hopper to third that Daniel Descalso, spelling Freese, pulled down neatly enough to throw him out by a few steps, and getting Murphy on a fly out to Craig in left, the Cardinals had finished anticlimactically what they started surrealistically the night before.

Who says David Freese is squirrelly?

Actually, the Cardinals started the whole thing in August, when they picked themselves off from a thrashing by the Los Angeles Dodgers that included the Dodgers’ first three-game sweep in St. Louis in almost two decades, the Cardinals now having lost eight of their previous eleven, and the Dodgers—who had only one player (Matt Kemp) who could hit with anything smaller than a vault door—scoring 21 runs in the set.

They sat ten back of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and ten and a half out in the wild card picture. Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan would soon be crowing about “Alberta” Pujols and his eyesight after a Brewers loss to the Cardinals that included emptying dugouts and bullpens when Morgan heaved a bolt of tobacco at Carpenter following a ninth-inning punchout.

That was then. Oh, boy, this is now. These Cardinals, perhaps David Freese and Allen Craig in particular, may not have to pick up a check for a steak in St. Louis for maybe the rest of their lives. Nyjer Morgan—does anyone remember his seeing-eye single off J.J. Putz in the bottom of the tenth to clinch the Brewers’ trip to the NLCS anymore?—won’t have too hard a time finding people willing to pick up the tabs for his crow, either.

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