Keeping Score

Game 7 Heaven: The St. Louis Cardinals Are the Comeback World Series Champions

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(Eric Gay / AP)

The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate after Texas Rangers' David Murphy flies out to end Game 7 of baseball's World Series Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, in St. Louis.

(ST. LOUIS) – When David Murphy of the Texas Rangers took the final swing of this memorable, sometimes magical, World Series, Allen Craig, the St. Louis left fielder, forgot his fundamentals as the ball sailed toward him. 

“Honestly, when he hit it I turned the wrong way,” says Craig while standing on the Busch Stadium field after Game 7, the championship confetti spread across the grass. “And then I had to look over my shoulder and try to pick it up again, and it was bouncing left and right in the air.” Just squeeze it, thought 13-year veteran Lance Berkman, anticipating that elusive first title. “I was like, ‘just catch it, please,’” says Craig. “So we can go home with the victory. It’s crazy.”

Crazy, yes – the St. Louis Cardinals are the World Series champions for an 11th time. The ball found the middle of Craig’s glove, sealing St. Louis’ convincing 6-2 victory over the Rangers in the deciding game Friday night. Throughout the last month of the regular season, and this excellent postseason, the Cardinals would just never go away. After making a series of moves to shore up its bullpen around the trade deadline, the team struggled, falling 10.5 games back in the wild card race in late August to the Atlanta Braves. Around this time, baseball commissioner Bud Selig even met up with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, and gave him a ‘get ‘em next year’ pep talk.

But the Cardinals weren’t remotely done with 2011. Veteran Cardinals ace, and former Cy Young winner, Chris Carpenter, the workhorse who won his second game of the series in Game 7, called a meeting. “There was a few of us who felt that something had to be said,” Carpenter recalled after Friday night’s game. “And it wasn’t about ‘we need to clean it up and start playing better to win the World Series. It was, ‘we need to start playing like the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball . . .it was about not embarrassing ourselves.’”

(PHOTOS: Memorable World Series Moments)

The Cardinals got back into the playoff race, and won a game on the last day of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs. They came back from a 2-1 deficit to beat the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies in the first round, and then took six games to bounce the confident Milwaukee Brewers (the team with the best home record in all of baseball) out of the National League Championship Series. In this nail-biter of a World Series, which saw so many lead swings and close games, the Cardinals were down to their last strike, twice, in Game 6. They somehow survived that ordeal.

So a Game 7 win, in their home ballpark – and yes, we know it’s a sham that All-Star game results determine home field advantage for the World Series – felt inevitable.  “I just think we have tough guys who are professional and never quit,” says Berkman. “It’s not like football, when you get fired up before every single game and charge the field. It comes from inside, when you know you’re going to fight and concentrate until the last out.”

Every night, someone new stood out for the Cardinals. Craig, a part-time second-year player, was key in Game 7. Texas took a quick 2-0 lead in the first, but St. Louis, who came back from a couple of two-run deficits in Game 6, clearly had the Rangers where they wanted them: down a pair. David Freese, the St. Louis area native who quit baseball out of high school, but is now the World Series MVP, ripped a double to left-center field, scoring Albert Pujols and Berkman, who had both walked with two outs. The hit put the crowd back in the game.

In the third, Craig blasted a 3-2 fastball from Rangers starter Matt Harrison into the right field seats, giving St. Louis a 3-2 lead. “They were pitching me tough all series,” says Craig. “Busting me in, fastballs, off-speed. I just tried to center my approach, get one over the plate.  I was fortunate that he got it a little outside and up, and I just put my swing on it.”  As it turns out, that third run was the only one Carpenter and the Cardinal bullpen would need.

(LIST: Top 10 World Series Moments)

St. Louis got a few breaks in the fifth. With Cardinals runners on second and third and two out, Rangers manager Ron Washington, who was fond of issuing intentional walks all series, handed out another one, to Freese. This time, the strategy cost him. With the bases now loaded, Yadier Molina worked a walk, forcing in a run. Though the replays showed that the final 3-2 pitch was probably a strike, no matter – St. Louis now led 4-2. Texas starter C.J. Wilson, doing some emergency relief work on the last day of the season, then replaced Texas reliever Scott Feldman. On Wilson’s first pitch, he nailed Rafael Furcal, forcing in another run. In all, the Rangers issued three walks – including the intentional one – and hit two batters in the unsightly inning.

In the sixth, Texas right fielder Nelson Cruz hit a long fly ball, carrying hopes for a Rangers comeback, into left field. Craig, starting in place of the injured and ineffective Matt Holliday, set himself up at the wall. “He shot it out into outer space,” Craig says of Cruz’s shot. “I thought it was never going to come down. I tried to pick a spot where it was going to land. I didn’t know I was going to have to jump for it.” Craig leapt, and reached over the fence to rob Cruz of a home run.

Craig, 27, was a high school basketball star back in Temecula, Calif. Did hoops help his outfield hops? “I guess you can say that,” Craig says. “Though I was about 30 pounds lighter in high school. So I’m glad I still got it a little bit.” Texas never seriously threatened again and become the first side since the 1991-92 Braves to lose two World Series in a row.

Last year Craig, who attended the University of California-Berkeley, shuttled up to St. Louis from AAA Memphis four different times (all while completing the language requirement for his Cal degree, in social work, via the internet).  “Being sent back, then called back up, then sent back – that’s tough for a kid,” says St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire. “But he came into spring training this year a new Allen Craig. He knew what Tony (La Russa) wanted.” Craig grew to accept his utility role, though his World Series production – three home runs, the winning hit in Games 1 and 7 – will force the Cardinals to find him more at-bats.

“Everything came full circle,” Craig says, amidst the on-field celebration. “It was frustrating as heck going up and down, and dealing with the new role and how to go about it . . .  That’s what I had to do to be successful. Just come in, contribute when someone goes down, spot start. Last year was a learning experience, and I think it prepared me for this moment. To be sitting here, where we are, is just incredible.”

(MORE: How the St. Louis Cardinals Won A World Series Classic)

Though St. Louis’ Game 6 theatrics will always define this World Series – Craig contributed to that win too, with a solo home run in the eighth that cut Texas’ lead to 7-5 – give the Cards credit for closing it out. After it was all over, as the alcohol sprayed in the jubilant locker room, the Cardinals started chanting “Happy Flight! Happy Flight!” That’s the team cheer after wins on “getaway” day, when the Cardinals board a plane for a road trip, or a return flight home, after a game. Carpenter, who never hid his emotions on the field this postseason, especially in the World Series, hushed everyone for a moment. “We battled,” Carpenter shouted. “We dominated everybody. And now, we’re the world f—–g champions.” His teammates roared, and popped more champagne.

Then they started another chant. “No more games! No more games!” Indeed, the 2011 baseball season went the distance. Few bet that St. Louis would be chugging the bubbly.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.