It’s been nine years since the World Series saw a Game 7, winner take all. Baseball fans have been starving for one. Well, we’ve got one this year. On Friday night, the St. Louis Cardinals will host the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. But in a way, that’s too bad, because it’s bound to be anticlimactic. Game 7 will never beat Game 6. What could possibly beat Game 6?
The Cardinals’ 10-9 victory over the Rangers on Thursday night, which ended with an 11th inning walk-off home run by third baseman David Freese, started out as an ugly, error-prone joke of a baseball game. It ended as one of the most beautiful, tense, exhilarating, mind-bending things you’ll ever see. In back-to-back innings, the ninth and the tenth, St. Louis was down to its last strike, and the Texas Rangers on the verge of clinching their first championship since the franchise came into existence, as the old Washington Senators, in 1961. And in those back-to-back innings, the Cardinals tied it up at the final moment, extending Texas’ agony, before Freese crushed his winning home run. The fans that drove all the way from Texas, waving the state flag, to witness a coronation in St. Louis will have to wait another night for a championship. Then again, they may never get that close to tasting glory again.
“I’ve never been close to being in a game like this, I promise,” says Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland, who gave up one run in two innings of relief. “It was nerve-racking. I thought I could have a heart attack. Both teams were fighting so hard to the end. I can’t think of anything better for baseball.”
The game had so many heroes and goats that will become footnotes, since something more surprising always seemed to happen in the next inning. Take Matt Holliday, for example. Nelson Cruz of Texas led off the top of the fourth with a shallow fly ball to left field: neither Holliday, the St. Louis left fielder, nor shortstop Rafael Furcal could sort out who would catch it. At the last second Holliday lunged for it and dropped it. Cruz reached second and scored on a Mike Napoli single to give Texas a 3-2 lead.
The very next inning, with the score tied 3-3, Freese dropped a simple fly ball at third base. “I felt like I was part of a circus out there, bouncing balls off the top of my hat,” Freese says. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe that happened. A 4-year-old would have caught it with two hands.'” That error led to another go-ahead Texas run.
In the top of the seventh, and the score now tied 4-4, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz slugged back-to-back solo home runs that put the Rangers just nine outs away from the title. These guys would be kings of Texas! The Rangers entered the bottom of the ninth with a 7-5 lead and ace closer Neftali Feliz on the mound. With runners on first and second and two outs, the St. Louis season came down to Freese, the man with the jittery hands. “I went up to the dish saying, ‘What a great way to have my first career at-bat off Feliz,’ ” says Freese, who grew up in a St. Louis suburb. “He started off with some off-speed, so I was like, Now what’s coming? I just said, ‘Heater.’ ”
Freese hit the 1-2 fastball the opposite way, into deep right field. At first, it felt gone, but the deep dimensions at Busch wouldn’t permit a home run. Cruz looked like he had a read on it. At that moment, the World Series felt finished. “Rounding first base, I thought he was going to catch it,” Freese says. But Cruz mistimed his run back to the wall. When he reached out his glove, he couldn’t catch up to the ball. Both runs scored on the Freese triple. Busch Stadium went wild. The Cardinals, who were down 10.5 games in the playoff race in late August, a stretch-run afterthought, were saved once again.
But before the Cardinals crowd came down from its high, Josh Hamilton sent it reeling again. With a man on first in the top of the 10th, Hamilton, last year’s American League MVP who had not hit a home run all postseason, slugged the first pitch from reliever Jason Motte comfortably over the right-field wall. Now, it was 9-7 Rangers. They’d get their title. Hamilton, the man who has faced so many personal demons, would be the toast of Texas and all of baseball.