Friday, October 28, 2011

I admit it, I gave up. Tons of times. This Cardinals team earned my respect, my scorn, and my hope all in a vicious cycle for these six or so months. They blew a 6-2 9th inning lead against the Mets with about a week to go. They blew the most games they'd led in the final inning of any team in baseball. They are maddening to watch. I have almost nothing left as a fan. I just need to be honest here.
And so, after three errors that all led to runs and a 7-4 lead for the Texas Rangers, trying to win the first title of their existence as a team that made their maiden voyage in 1961, I thought, "It's over." My brother was swearing and asking Tony La Russa why Lance Lynn, only equipped for one inning of duty, returned to surrender the leading runs. As for me, I always lack faith. I pronounced our doom, as is my role as the realist yet again. When Allen Craig smacked a homer in the eighth to make it 7-5, I said to myself, "Why are you making it closer? It'll just hurt worse." When the Cards loaded the bases later that inning, needing only one hit to tie the score, Rafael Furcal's groundout to end the inning surely sealed our fate.
In the final inning, the team did exactly what they needed to do to make a run at it: first and second, no outs. The pitcher Kyle Lohse, batting because the Cards were out of position players, executed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third. Again, one hit ties the score. Craig was up again, and when he was surprised by an off-speed pitch with two strikes looking at strike three, I thought it was over. David Freese got two strikes on him as the final hope. A deep fly ball to left. It might go out, we thought. It started to die at the track. Nelson Cruz drifted back on what looked to be a season-ending near-miss. But Cruz doesn't like walls, and having failed to get back to the wall quickly, he was surprised when it carried. He jumped and stretched, but the ball hit the wall to the left of his glove! Tie score. Freese made it to third. 7-7. Another hit wins it for the Cardinals. But no such luck.
When Josh Hamilton, the drug-addict turned AL MVP, hit a two-run homer in the 10th, it seemed to this fan that the man with the pulled groin and Oscar-worthy life story would take his Texas Rangers to a title. But the Cardinals had other plans. Having scored another run to make it 9-8, Lance Berkman was himself down two strikes with two outs. "Texas is way too deep in the outfield," we said. Any hit would surely score the runner from second. Berkman got a cut fastball inside. Cut fastballs are designed to jam hitters and break bats. Mission accomplished. But Berkman was ready, and hit it hard. Single. Tie score, again! The Cardinals had trailed 5 times in this game. They still needed to survive the 11th inning after failing to win in their half of the 10th. Edwin Jackson had been announced as a pinch-hitter before Lohse in the 9th, and so was unavailable to pitch. There was only one pitcher left: Jake Westbrook. The same Jake Westbrook who'd surrendered 5 runs to Houston in the penultimate game of the regular season, who'd been left off the postseason roster for ineffectiveness. The team had of course won that game anyway. The teams in postseason play can adjust their rosters before each round. The great Tony La Russa must have figured he'd need another starting pitcher in an ugly World Series, so he put Westbrook on the roster. And here he was, in the top of the 11th inning of the World Series. When he surrendered no runs in that inning, I shouted, "We picked you up in Houston,"--in St. Louis, the fans are on the team--"now you're gonna pick us up!" For the first time, there was a structural advantage for the Cardinals: their final pitcher was a starting pitcher who'd not pitched. The Rangers brought out their final man, Mark Lowe, a short reliever. He'd have two innings, perhaps three. If we didn't win in the next, we were OK, we reasoned. Westbrook would not hamper the overall readiness of the pitching staff in a presumptive 7th game, no matter how long this game went. The Rangers may be another story.
All you need to know is that David Freese--the man who dropped a pop-up in the fifth inning, leading to the 7-4 deficit, who made atonement with the tying triple in the 9th, only to see his team fall behind again, he who was traded as an afterthought to the Cardinals for the aging Jim Edmonds, who played at Lafayette High School mere minutes from my house--hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th. And so, the greatest baseball game I had ever seen was concluded, 10-9. And the author of the game supplanted by this one as the best I'd ever seen, Chris Carpenter (who'd thrown a three-hit shutout in the fifth and deciding game of the opening playoff series against his best friend, Roy Halladay) will get the ball in this very last game with everything at stake. No matter what happens, he and the rest of his team have earned the respect of Cardinals fans that will not soon abate. The Comeback Kids come home one last time, to try to win one last game--the 180th of this long season--for the 11th championship in the city called "Baseball Heaven."


Jamie Stober said...

Wonderful account of the greatest game in World Series history!

Timothy R. Butler said...

Indeed! What a beautiful game!