ST. LOUIS -- The World Series has been equal parts improbable, dramatic, thrilling and strange, and for the fans of the two teams in question, a ticket to both exhilaration and despair.

Now after all the ups and downs, we arrive at the ultimate baseball moment, when this dispute is settled in the classic manner: a Game 7 of the World Series. Baseball has not seen this moment for nine years. But Friday night in Busch Stadium, the Rangers and Cardinals will be playing just this one game for the championship.

This moment was reached in, to put it mildly, unexpected ways. The Cardinals scored 16 runs in Game 3. Obviously, their Albert Pujols-propelled attack could not be stopped. They then scored a total of two runs in the next two games. The Rangers intentionally walked Pujols at every feasible juncture, and it was as though they had discovered fire, the wheel and possibly the electric light bulb -- all in the same thought.

GOING THE DISTANCE
The World Series is going to a Game 7 for the ninth time in the past 30 years.
Year Winner Loser
2002 Angels Giants
2001 D-backs Yankees
1997 Marlins Indians
1991 Twins Braves
1987 Twins Cardinals
1986 Mets Red Sox
1985 Royals Cardinals
1982 Cardinals Brewers

So the Rangers were obviously in charge with a 3-2 lead. And twice on Thursday night, they were one strike away from a World Series championship. But the Cardinals -- just as they had refused to go away when they were 10 1/2 games back in the National League Wild Card race in late August -- would not quit one strike away from elimination. They rallied repeatedly in Game 6, finally winning, 10-9, on David Freese's 11th-inning homer.

The starting pitchers will be Matt Harrison for the Rangers vs. Chris Carpenter for the Cardinals. Carpenter, after much speculation he would get the start, was made official before game time. The ace of St. Louis' staff, Carpenter is a man with an 8-2 career record and a 3.06 ERA in 14 postseason starts.

This would represent the hidden blessing of the Wednesday night rainout for the Cardinals -- a gift, in essence, that allows them to start Carpenter on short rest in Game 7. It was technically Kyle Lohse's turn to start, but he is largely the anti-Carpenter in the postseason -- 0-4 in nine appearances, four of them starts, with a 5.54 ERA.

For the Rangers, there had been speculation that manager Ron Washington would alter his rotation to give a Game 7 start to Derek Holland, who had been nothing less than brilliant in his Game 4 start. With the rainout, Holland could have pitched on regular rest in Game 7.

But none of this speculation was in any way fed by Washington. Harrison had pitched more consistently in the first two postseason rounds than Holland, and in any case, this is his turn to pitch and Washington isn't budging from the perceived correctness of that notion. The fact that Holland was used in relief in Game 6 sewed it up for anybody who doubted Washington's crystal-clear statements on this matter.

"Matt Harrison is my seventh-game starter," Washington said repeatedly, often, whenever he was asked.

The 26-year-old left-hander obviously does not have Carpenter's postseason resume, but his stuff is of unquestionable quality, and his regular-season record (14-9, 3.39 ERA) demonstrates the strides he has made since last year when he was left off the Rangers' postseason roster.

The beauty of this World Series -- and one of the major reasons it has gone as far as it can possibly go -- is that each game has been a self-contained entity. The carryover effect, one game to the next, has been minimal to the point of being non-existent. The Cardinals' 16-run explosion in Game 3 led only to offensive frustration in Games 4 and 5. The Rangers' victories in those two games seemed to mean that one of these teams had finally gained a kind of irreversible momentum. No, it didn't, as Game 6 demonstrated.

An objective view of Game 6 would normally lead to the conclusion that the Cardinals, riding high after a gallant series of comebacks, could not possibly do anything other than win Game 7. And on the flip side, a demoralizing defeat of this sort would have to leave the Rangers in dire emotional straits for Game 7.

But the World Series so far has been about defying conventional expectations. For fans of baseball, Game 7 becomes a rare, but genuine pleasure. And with these two teams, it becomes a rare, genuine pleasure that cannot be easily compressed into a handy, predictable package.