ST. LOUIS -- The transformation from walking dead to world champions took a total of 24 hours, a process that reached its completion late Friday night when David Murphy's long fly ball landed safely in the glove of Allen Craig to secure a 6-2 victory over the Rangers in the seventh game of the World Series.
The Cardinals stormed the mound, fireworks thumped in the downtown sky and multi-colored confetti shot from cannons throughout Busch Stadium. Even after St. Louis had locked up its second world championship in six years and 11th overall, nobody seemed totally sure how it came about. How a wild-card team had rallied from 10½ games back in late August to win the World Series.
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"I mean, it's hard to explain how we made it happen, except the club has great guts," said Tony La Russa, who earned his third World Series ring, including two in 16 years with the Cardinals. "Really, we have more talent than people think, but we have great guts."
A night earlier, in Game 6, the Cardinals were a strike away from elimination -- twice. But they clawed back to stand alone on baseball's pinnacle, thanks to the steadying right arm of Chris Carpenter and another MVP-worthy performance from hometown hero David Freese. The Cardinals became the fifth wild-card team to win the Fall Classic and first since the 2004 Red Sox, who swept St. Louis.
"This is what you play for," said pending free agent Albert Pujols, who went 5-for-6 with three homers and six RBIs in Game 3 but 1-for-19 with no RBIs in the rest of the series. "It doesn't matter the numbers, it doesn't matter the records, it doesn't matter the money that you make. What matters is to raise that trophy and to be able to bring that smile to the city of St. Louis."
Freese, who earned MVP honors for both the World Series and NLCS, came through twice in the late innings of Game 6, and his two-run double answered the Rangers' 2-0 surge in the first inning of Game 7. He set a record with 21 RBIs this postseason, passing the old mark of 19 by Sandy Alomar Jr., Scott Spiezio and David Ortiz.
"I'm trying to soak this all in," said Freese, who hit .348 with seven RBIs in the World Series. "I've tried to soak in this whole postseason as much as I can because you never know if it's your last attempt at a title. It's going to take a little bit, I think, to realize what we've accomplished. Just to win it is an incredible feeling."
Carpenter, pitching on three days' rest for the second time this month, allowed two runs in six-plus innings but none after the first. He became the first pitcher to start three games in a World Series since 2001, when Curt Schilling did it for Arizona. Carpenter improved to 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 postseason starts and 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in four World Series starts, including 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA this year.
"I didn't know how long they were going to let me go," Carpenter said. "So I was just trying to do everything I can to get one out at a time. I felt like as the game went on, I felt stronger."
For the Cardinals, who were 67-63 on Aug. 24, went 23-9 to erase a 10½-game wild-card deficit and earned a playoff berth on the final night of the regular season, doing things the hard way seemed to come naturally. The Cardinals' 90 wins were the lowest among the playoff teams.
But that's been a familiar theme for the Cardinals, whose title in 2006 came after they finished with 83 wins. Their late-season streak this year was spurred by a clubhouse talk by Carpenter, who talked about playing baseball the "Cardinals Way."
"It was about not embarrassing ourselves," Carpenter said. "It was about continuing to play hard, to give something to our fans, no matter if we won or if we didn't. I didn't want to ruin it for the last month and a half of people starting to point fingers and all that stuff."
Adding to their mythology was Freese, who grew up a Cardinals fan in a St. Louis suburb, tied Game 6 in the ninth with a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple, won that game with a homer in the 11th and tied up Game 7, too.
As bad as last year's World Series defeat was for the Rangers, who lost to the Giants in five games, this one was much worse. They failed to hold a lead five different times in Game 6 and twice were a strike away from the first championship in the franchise's 51-year history.
"It's going to be all right," Josh Hamilton said. "We came up a little short again, but you know what, we made some progress. We'll take some time off, but we won't forget how this feels."
Said Ron Washington, "Sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can't let it get away because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back. If there's one thing that happened in this World Series that I'll look back on is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story."
La Russa said he didn't make the final decision to start Carpenter on three days' rest until Friday morning. Despite his Cy Young credentials, there was risk involved. In the only other start of his career on short rest, for Game 2 of the Division Series against the Phillies, Carpenter lasted only three innings.
It had to be unsettling when the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. But Carpenter stranded runners at first and third in the second and retired 13 of 15 batters before giving up a leadoff double to Murphy in the seventh. He then left to a standing ovation, and the St. Louis bullpen finished the job.
Allen Craig made the decision to remove Matt Holliday (bruised pinky finger) from the roster look better and better as the night progressed. Craig snapped a 2-2 tie with a third-inning homer and robbed Nelson Cruz with a leaping catch above the leftfield wall in the sixth.
Before Matt Harrison even threw a pitch, Washington was being second-guessed for not starting Derek Holland, an option afforded him by Wednesday's rainout. That decision looked worse when Harrison was gone after four innings with the Rangers trailing 3-2, and the Cards tacked on two more runs in the fifth without a hit, taking a 5-2 lead on three walks and two hit batters. Yadier Molina's RBI single in the seventh made it 6-2.
When asked if he had any regrets about not starting Holland, Washington shook his head. "There's not going to be anything in the back of my mind," he said. "I did what I thought was best for us. I know my team better than anybody in this [interview] room."
Just as they did five times in the nerve-rattling Game 6, the Cardinals had to rally from another deficit.
After Ian Kinsler opened the game with a single to left, Molina picked him off first when Kinsler suddenly aborted an attempt to steal second. But Elvis Andrus walked and Hamilton -- fresh off his two-run homer in the 10th inning of Game 6 -- pulled an RBI double to right. When Michael Young doubled him home, it seemed as though the painful events of Game 6 had faded from their memories, just as Washington promised they would.
But with a 2-0 lead and two outs in the bottom of the first, Harrison walked Pujols on four pitches and Lance Berkman (who batted .423 in the World Series) on five. Not a good idea with Freese up next, and Thursday's hero lined a two-run double to left-centerfield to tie the score at 2.
Said Freese, "I still can't believe that we actually did this."