© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
ST. LOUIS -- The difference between ecstasy and agony, hurrah and heartbreak, could be measured in the few feet, inches maybe, separating Nelson Cruz's awkwardly outstretched glove from David Freese's life-preserving line drive.
That's when Game 6 became Game 6.
That's when a game that was entertaining, if a bit unsightly, began to take on truly epic qualities.
And everything that happened from that moment forward was unfathomably awesome.
"I think," Cruz would say after it ended, "if you tell somebody about this game, they would not believe you."
No, you had to see it to believe it.
Had to watch the Cardinals picking themselves up off the mat with that two-run Freese triple to deny -- momentarily, at minimum -- the Rangers their first World Series title.
Had to understand Josh Hamilton's breathtaking backstory and obvious ailment to fully appreciate the heroics of his homer in the 10th.
"If I don't tell you that's the best game I've played [in], I'm lying to you."
-- Albert Pujols
Had to actively participate in the second-guessing as the Rangers walked Albert Pujols to get to Lance Berkman, only to watch the latter come through in the clutch.
And had to witness, with mouth agape, Freese swatting himself and his team into a special place in postseason lore with an 11th-inning leadoff blast for the books.
But hey, if you missed the Cardinals' 10-9 win in 11 innings, don't worry. You'll find no shortage of folks willing to rehash this tale again and again.
"Baseball," Pujols said with a smile, "this is what it's all about. If I don't tell you that's the best game I've played [in], I'm lying to you."
Pardon the Rangers if they don't provide such a glowing review, for they became the first team in history to come within one strike of winning a World Series title in two separate innings
and come out with a loss.
Whether this game finds itself alongside Game 6 in '86 in the creative comeback chapter of the World Series story, sans a Bill Buckner bumble, is a matter that can't be determined until we know the outcome of Game 7.
But we can already safely state that this was the kind of soul-stirring (or soul-crushing) event that inspires us to faithfully follow this crazy sport in the first place. And coming as it did at the tail end of what has been one of the more riveting months in the game's long history only adds to the intrigue. Remember, one month to the day before Game 7, the regular season ended on a wild Wednesday night in which the final two postseason berths were clinched in extra innings.
And oh yeah, remember that these Cardinals were one of the clubs doing the clinching that enchanting evening.
"If you're a baseball fan," Berkman said, "this has got to be one of the greatest end-of-the-regular-season-slash/postseason deals you've ever seen. This is incredible."
About the only thing incredible about this game early on was the flamboyance of its flubs. It's no exaggeration to say a Little Leaguer could have caught the pop fly that Freese dropped in the fifth, nor is it over the line to say a left fielder like Matt Holliday should have learned in Little League not to defer to a shortstop in poor position on a fly ball that was all his own. Both balls fell in, and both led to runs. Holliday also got picked off at third with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh. That's a no-no.
And the Rangers contributed to the chaos, too. Michael Young made two errors at first to allow unearned runs in the fourth and sixth. The Cardinals scored that pair despite notching just a single hit across those two innings. An especially-erratic Alexi Ogando walked home the tying run in the sixth on a pitch that was not in the same time zone as the strike zone.
Ugly, ugly, ugly.
"There were a lot of things you could look at and say, 'That's not good baseball,'" Berkman said.
Yet you couldn't look away. The score was too close -- tied at 4, in fact, through six -- and too much was on the line.
When Adrian Beltre and Cruz went back-to-back with blasts in the top of the seventh, the outlook was altered, and Ian Kinsler's insurance RBI had the Rangers nine outs away from glory with a comfy 7-4 cushion in hand. Allen Craig's solo homer off Derek Holland in the eighth kept it interesting, and Mike Adams let the Cards load the bases to set the stage for a rally.
But when Rafael Furcal grounded weakly back to the mound, it all felt a little anticlimactic, didn't it?
Turns out, the fates were just saving up the good stuff.
In World Series history, only three previous teams trailing in the eighth inning or later in a Game 6 had rallied to win it. The '85 Royals and the '86 Mets were the two most memorable teams to do so, as they each forced a Game 7 they would go on to win (and the Royals did so against the Cards). The 1975 Red Sox scored three off the Reds in the bottom of the eighth to tie it and scored in the bottom of the 12th to win it and force a Game 7, but they went on to lose the Series.
What the Cards sought to accomplish, then, was not without precedent.
You just would have had a hard time predicting it.
Ballclubs love to talk about how resilient they are. It's a byproduct of a seemingly endless season that is a daily test of wills. But few embody that notion quite as well as these Cardinals, one of the great comeback stories in regular-season history. They were 10 1/2 back of the Wild Card in late August. If you had them reaching October, let alone the World Series, at that point, your bias is barefaced.
But this is what happens when teams start believing in their invincibility.
You get moments like the ninth, when Freese comes to the plate with two on and two out, falls in a 1-2 count, and then, out of nowhere, lines a four-seamer to the opposite field and over Cruz's glove for a game-tying two-run triple.
You get moments like the 10th, when the sting of Hamilton playing through pain to smack a go-ahead two-run homer is only temporary. When the ridiculousness of having to use Kyle Lohse as a pinch-hitter because the bench is exhausted is not a deterrent. When seeing your best hitter's bat taken out of his hands in the form of yet another intentional walk is not a deal-breaker.
"We've had several left-for-dead type moments," said Berkman, whose RBI single in that 10th would tie it, "but none bigger than tonight."
They weren't dead in the ninth or the 10th and certainly not the 11th. Jake Westbrook pitched a scoreless inning to get the 11th started off right, and then it was just a matter of finding a hero to hoist.
It was Freese. Again. The hometown kid drew a 3-2 count against Mark Lowe, and then sent a deep fly ball to center that landed in the outfield grass and ended this epic evening in truly epic fashion. Put Freese alongside Carlton Fisk in '75 and Kirby Puckett in '91 -- the only three men to force a Game 7 with a walk-off shot.
"Growing up or whatever," Freese said, "you see stuff like that happen, those become memories."
So many memories were made here in Game 6. But the memories aren't all this game gave us.
It gave us Game 7.