Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2011

Freese’s Fairy Tale Is A Nightmare For Texas

Even the longest season in sport eventually comes to an end; and so this one did Friday night in St. Louis. As late as the final week of August the Gateway City would have been considered an unlikely locale for Game Seven of the 2011 World Series. Many months earlier, when the annual call for pitchers and catchers to report heralded the Great Game’s renewal, Cardinals’ fans were doubtless as filled with hope as the faithful of all the other 29 franchises. Spring is always the time of hope and dreams. But for St. Louis those hopes were battered early, when it was announced that ace pitcher Adam Wainwright would need Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. With that dreadful start to their 2011 campaign, it was no great surprise that with 31 games to play the Cardinals were a distant second to the Brewers in the NL Central Division, and in an even more distant third place in the race for the NL Wild Card. But it is the order of finish after 162 games that matters most, and St. Louis surged through September while Atlanta swooned. On the regular season’s final day, the Cardinals claimed the Wild Card ticket to the playoffs.

In those distant days of Spring Training, most of the pundits had settled on two east coast franchises as the likely contestants in this year’s World Series. Boston, with its powerful lineup, and Philadelphia, with its ace-laden rotation, were installed as the smart money favorites to represent their respective leagues. But the Red Sox imploded in September (and kept right on doing so after their season ended); and the Phillies were beaten by these same Cardinals in the first round of the post-season. Thus four mid-market Midwestern teams vied for the two league championships. The Cardinals, their 90 regular season wins the fewest of any of the eight teams making the playoffs, continued their late surge, beating Milwaukee in six games.

In the junior circuit, the Texas Rangers were a less surprising champion. It took the franchise born as the expansion Washington Senators half a century to win a playoff series. But they finally did so in 2010, and went on to win the ALCS over the Yankees. Though they lost the World Series to San Francisco, and shortly thereafter lost ace Cliff Lee to Philadelphia, Texas remained the class of the AL West, easily outdistancing the Angels during the regular season. The Rangers beat the Rays in the Division Series for the second straight year, and then let Nelson Cruz and his six home runs power them past the Tigers in the ALCS.

So it was that this year’s World Series was a match-up of two teams from the fly over states. One was a franchise with a long history in the game and in the Series. The Cardinals played their 120th season in the National League this year, and their 11 championships and 18 appearances in the Series are both second only to the team from the Bronx. The other was a team born in the game’s first expansion, with little post-season history or success. But it was the Rangers who were in their second straight Series, and it was the Rangers who had to be counted as the favorites as play began.

For the first time in nearly a decade the Series went the distance, as the two teams battled through seven mostly taut games. Three of the games were decided by one run, and neither team ever had more than a one-game advantage. In that sense it was a fitting end to a tight post-season. Of 41 potential playoff games through the three rounds, only 3 were not needed. While some thought the lack of a big market team would mean abysmal ratings, viewership through the first five games was comparable to 2010. The extra-inning Game Six produced the highest rating since the Yankees last Series appearance in 2009, and Game Seven had the best rating for a World Series broadcast since 2004.

In the end of course, in one clubhouse there was going to be champagne and joy while in the other just emptiness and silence. Despite 96 regular season victories, for the second year in a row the Texas Rangers came up short. But a year ago a team that was winning in the post-season for the first time ever seemed just happy to be invited to the party. This Texas team was thought to be ready; which makes the nature of their defeat all the more scarring. Not once, but twice in Game Six the Rangers reached out, the brightly shining prize of ultimate triumph seemingly in their grasp. Not once, but twice it proved to be so much quicksilver, slipping through their fingers.

Leading 7-5 in the 9th inning, Texas called on closer Neftali Feliz the shut the door on St. Louis and make the Rangers champions. With one out Albert Pujols stroked a double to center. It was the only hit in the Series for Pujols outside of his other-worldly three home run, five hit performance in Game Three. After walking Lance Berkman, Feliz threw a called third strike past Alan Craig, and then went to 1-2 against David Freese. St. Louis was down to its final strike. That’s when Freese hammered the ball to the wall in right field for a triple that scored Pujols and Berkman, knotting the score.

One inning later, Texas was again up by two, thanks to a home run by Josh Hamilton in the top of the 10th. Two singles and a sacrifice bunt put St. Louis runners in scoring position and a ground out by Ryan Theriot cut the Texas lead in half. This time it was Scott Feldman on the mound and Lance Berkman at the plate. This time the count was 2-2. Texas was again a single pitch from victory. But Berkman singled to center, and again the game was tied.

In the last of the 11th Freese led off for the Cardinals. Growing up in greater St. Louis, he had idolized the Cardinals. No doubt the young Freese, playing in a backyard pickup game, had imagined himself striding to the plate in a St. Louis uniform, the game on the line. In real life the 28-year old Freese made the dream a reality, hitting a walk-off homer to center and sending the Series to a Game 7. As the ball flew into the stands, Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck reprised the famous call his father Jack had made in a playoff Game Six two decades earlier; saying simply “And we will see you tomorrow night.”

Pitching on short rest one night later, Chris Carpenter surrendered two runs in the top of the first inning. Given manager Tony LaRussa’s penchant for a quick hook, one wondered for a moment if Carpenter would survive the first frame. But survive he did, pitching into the 7th inning. The Rangers’ two runs in the first would be their last of 2011. Meanwhile Freese continued his home town heroics, doubling home Pujols and Berkman in the bottom of the first to tie the score. When Alan Craig homered in the 3rd the Cardinals had a Game Seven lead they would not relinquish.

If the finish to the season brought bitter disappointment to the Rangers and their fans, that was more than offset by the unique joy experienced by the Cardinals and their faithful; the joy of improbable victory. For David Freese, that joy included a World Series MVP trophy. The season has ended, and winter is nigh. But the proof that in this game the dreams of little boys still come true will warm us through the dark months, until once again the annual call of renewal rings out.

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