The Cardinals have moved beyond the unlikely, through the implausible and onto the absurd. Thursday night before the largest crowd ever to watch a game at new Busch Stadium they added a chapter too complex to fully understand but too compelling to ignore.
Twice down to their last strike and possible elimination from the World Series, the Cardinals twice rallied to tie the Texas Rangers before ultimately forcing tonight's Game 7 on third baseman David Freese's 11th-inning launch into the night against reliever Mark Lowe.
Freese, the NL championship series MVP, won the game 10-9 two innings after he had extended it with a two-out, two-run, two-strike triple over Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz.
Freese's towering drive in the 11th dropped onto the center field knoll one inning after right fielder Lance Berkman delivered a two-out, two-strike flare to center field that completed another two-run rescue.
"If that's not the best postseason game of all time, I don't know what could top it. That was unbelievable," Berkman said.
Gravely wounded in late July and presumed dead in late August, the Cardinals found yet more life on a chilly night when they committed as many errors as they produced hits through seven innings. They prolonged a season when most of the evening screamed it was time to go. They did so by becoming the first team in World Series history to score in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings.
"I'm out of breath. I just got beat up by 30 guys," Freese said, his shredded jersey on its way to Cooperstown. "It wasn't always pretty but this was all about getting to tomorrow."
The Cardinals tonight strive for their 11th World Series championship by trying to deal the Rangers consecutive losses for the first time in 46 games. Their starting pitcher remains a mystery to everyone except manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, though Chris Carpenter and Edwin Jackson remain the leading candidates. In Thursday's aftermath, no one really cared.
"It's not that easy to win a world championship as we found out tonight. We had the right people in the right spots. They beat us," said Rangers manager Ron Washington.
The game ended with Jake Westbrook its pitcher of record, the Cardinals out of position players and after one starting pitcher had pinch-hit for another.
"I don't know how things could have been more perfect," Washington said.
The Rangers twice moved within one strike of their first championship since relocation from the nation's capital to suburban Dallas 40 seasons ago. But the Cardinals have created something remarkable from a season of imperfection. Thursday represented the perfect metaphor.
"That defines our team, the way we kept coming back. We've been doing that for a long time," Freese said.
"It was an epic game in a lot of ways. It captures our season in one night. Nobody ever quit," said general manager John Mozeliak.
"I thought when you're down two runs to their closer in the ninth - this guy is a legitimate 1-2-3 and they're shaking hands," La Russa said. "You try to get something started. You don't try to hit three home runs. Once you get something started the other club worries."
The Cardinals' 100th win of 2011 has to stand as their most memorable.
Freese's home run was the 15th walk-off shot in World Series history and the Cardinals' first since 1944. Asked to describe the at-bat, Freese, who smoked a change-up, said simply, "I just sit heater. That's the way I hit."
It is now the Rangers who must exhibit resilience. Center fielder Josh Hamilton put them up 9-7 with a two-run 10th-inning home run off closer Jason Motte only to watch reliever Darren Oliver allow the first two hitters to reach in the frame's bottom half.
A sacrifice bunt advanced both runners into scoring position. Second baseman Ryan Theriot scored the first with a ground ball before Berkman lobbed his game-tying single for his night's third RBI.
"I felt pretty good about it because I figured I was in a no-lose situation," Berkman said. "If you don't come through right there, it's only one at-bat and it's over with, and they might talk about it for a couple days. It's not that big a deal. If you come through, it's the greatest. Plus, you've built a little bank account of being able to come through. So if I don't come through tomorrow I can say, ‘Well, I came through in Game 6. What do you want from me?'"
Just as they were punished Monday for wasting opportunities in Game 5, the Cardinals exacted revenge for the Rangers doing the same in Thursday's early innings.
The Cardinals fed the visitors opportunities via Jaime Garcia's three-inning start, three early errors and two first-inning walks. Yet the score remained tied 4-4 after six innings.
Back-to-back home runs by third baseman Adrian Beltre and Cruz off rookie Lance Lynn gave the Rangers a 6-4 lead before a wild pitch contributed to the inning's third run and what resembled an insurmountable margin.
La Russa at one point phoned the bullpen to remind his relievers they were to participate in a postgame thanks to the fans barring a late turnaround. The Rangers had shepherded friends and family into a lobby during the eighth inning in anticipation of a celebration.
Freese produced the first piece of last-gasp heroics after falling behind Feliz 1-2. He then rifled a 98 mph fastball that caught too much plate over Cruz as Albert Pujols and Berkman scored for a 7-7 game.
Berkman, who had given the Cardinals a fleeting 2-1 lead with a first-inning home run off Rangers starter Colby Lewis, saved the game the next inning by dropping a two-out single against surrogate closer Scott Feldman.
"It's not fun to go up there with the season on the line, but the experience is incredible," Berkman said.
The Rangers led in the first, fourth, fifth, seventh and 10th innings. The Cardinals led on Berkman's home run and not again until Freese's final ball dropped.
In between there was enough ugliness to believe the Cardinals had ceded the Series.
Long before Beltre and Cruz reached Lynn for their home runs, the Cardinals sabotaged themselves with three errors before securing their 13th out.
Left fielder Matt Holliday endured a forgettable game that included a second-inning dropped fly and a right hand injury suffered on a sixth-inning pick-off at third base.
After Berkman's home run, the Cardinals managed one hit from the second through the seventh innings.
The Rangers exhibited their own self-destructive tendencies by doing woefully little with the Cardinals' early-inning pratfalls. They finished four for 15 with runners in scoring position while dropping two saves.
The Cardinals' ninth inning saw them reach Feliz for two runs, leaving him with his first blown save in eight postseason chances.
In the 10th they opened their rally with consecutive hits before Kyle Lohse pinch hit for Jackson, who was pinch-hitting for reliever Motte. Lohse advanced both runners and almost beat the play to first base. Instead, the Cardinals drew within 9-8 on Theriot's ground ball and, following an intentional walk of Pujols, tied it on Berkman's one-out single.
"We had some [games] like it, but not like it. The one that happened today you had to be here to believe it," La Russa said.
The repeating dramatics elicited the predictable questions about living a child's backyard fantasy. Berkman, who perhaps exudes that enthusiasm more than any player in his clubhouse, offered a different perspective. "When you're a little kid out there, you don't have a bunch of reporters and fans that are ready to call you a choking dog if you don't come through. I'm just cautioning all the little kids out there. Be careful what you wish for."