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01/02/12 10:00 AM EST

Cards, Rangers battle in historic Series

ST. LOUIS -- It's a wonder the 2011 World Series even matched up the Cardinals and Rangers, never mind seeing the clubs play seven stunning, draining, historic games. A twist here, a turn there, and who knows if either even makes it to the Fall Classic.

That's of course especially true of the world champion Redbirds, who made it into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Pitching coach Dave Duncan, on a leave of absence to tend to his convalescing wife, made a special trip to Houston to be with manager Tony La Russa and the Cardinals in case it was La Russa's final game.

It wasn't. That came a month later.

In the interim, two evenly matched clubs survived rainouts and rain delays, extra-inning tests and plenty of general weirdness to set up one of the greatest World Series in recent memory. St. Louis endured a grueling five-game battle with the Phillies just to get out of the first round. Texas twice required extra innings in dispatching Detroit in the American League Championship Series.

And when they got there, what a show they put on. Allen Craig turned in big hit after big hit ... and still the Rangers rallied back against seemingly impenetrable Cards closer Jason Motte to secure a split in St. Louis. The now departed Albert Pujols turned in the greatest single-game hitting performance in World Series history in Game 3.

Derek Holland pitched a historic game in Game 4. La Russa's call to the bullpen got garbled in Game 5, giving Texas a lead after five games. And then ... Game 6. Oh, goodness, Game 6. It wasn't always pretty, but it was truly a classic. And the rain that pushed Game 6 back by a day played into the Cardinals' hands in Game 7, when the extra day off allowed Chris Carpenter to pitch on short rest.

It was amazing to watch. But in retrospect, to think about how many ways it might never have happened ... it's difficult even to process. The Rangers still feel like they did everything right, and on paper they likely had the better team. But after 10 days, St. Louis was the world champion.

"We had the right people in the right situations," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "There is nothing I regret. We just didn't get it done. That's all there is to it."

Pujols and Rangers top starter C.J. Wilson are both Angels now. La Russa retired. Craig's knee, barking throughout the postseason, needed surgery. Texas won the rights to try to negotiate a deal for a new No. 1 starter in Yu Darvish, who has never pitched in the Major Leagues. Closer Neftali Feliz, who let the lead get away for Texas in Game 6, will be in the starting rotation in 2012.

In retrospect, it was clear from the start that we were in for quite a series. Craig's pinch-hit off Alexi Ogando in the sixth inning of Game 1 delivered a taut win for the underdogs. Craig again beat Ogando for a go-ahead hit in Game 2, but a bizarre ninth saw Texas rally against Motte, Arthur Rhodes and Lance Lynn for the win.

Game 3 brought the Pujols show. The slugger, in one of his final games with the Cardinals, blasted three homers among five hits in a blowout St. Louis win. No one had ever had that combination before in a World Series game. Yet, the Cardinals didn't soar to victory from there. In fact, that's when things got tough. Holland dominated in Game 4, and Game 5 was simply ... bizarre.

La Russa called for one pitcher and got another, and the mixup -- "Lynn," it should be noted, doesn't sound much like "Motte" or "Rzepczynski" -- contributed to a Rangers win that put the American League champs in control.

But it was far, very far, from over. Rain washed out Game 6, forcing a one-day postponement. And that game was ever so worth waiting for. Texas took a three-run lead in the seventh, but Craig's homer gave the Cardinals life. Feliz faltered in the ninth, with David Freese tripling in the tying run. Texas again took the lead in the 10th but couldn't hold it.

And in the 11th, Freese channeled the man he was traded for, Jim Edmonds, with a walk-off homer to force a seventh game. It was a perfect capper to a jaw-dropping game. Freese still looks back at the video sometimes, but doesn't watch himself.

"When I see these highlights, I don't really look at where the ball goes or this and that, I look at everyone's reactions," he said. "That's what kills me. That's what I love about sports, is the way you can change a fan's emotion at the drop of a hat."

Or 50,000 or so fans' emotions. The Cardinals still had to finish it off, though, and that was up to Carpenter. Able to pitch on three days' rest because of the rainout, he offered up a performance for the ages. Freese contributed the big hit that got him out of trouble after a two-run Rangers first, and from there Carpenter was nails.

In so many ways, it almost didn't happen. But it did, and all of us as baseball fans are richer for it.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.