Ron Washington seems to carry about him the wisdom of a beat poet, buried beneath the glasses, the gap-toothed smile and, from his top-step dugout perch, the whooping and stomping of a rail jockey trying best he can to bring his horse home first. "That's the way baseball go," his much-repeated reflection on the sport's existentialism, is such a sine qua non of Rangers baseball that it was memorialized in the modern version of granite: the mass-market T-shirt.
When the 2011 season ended last Friday in St. Louis with a tepid World Series Game 7—as if baseball had withdrawn every bit of a 30-day supply of excitement and had to play a 31st day bankrupt—the Texas manager nailed what truth was found in a postseason of unsurpassed length and thrills. Sitting behind a microphone at Busch Stadium, with the world champion Cardinals and their fans madly celebrating a title that surprised even them, Washington practically read from his own version of On the Road.
"You know," he said, "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, [it's] being so close—just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story."
In the first 106 World Series, 105 teams stood one strike away from the championship and eventually won it. The only exception was the 1986 Red Sox. In the 107th World Series, Washington's Rangers became the '86 Red Sox' fraternal twin. Texas somehow managed twice—in successive innings in Game 6—to slip on infamy's banana peel at the cruelest possible moment, blowing two-run leads in the ninth and 10th innings before losing 10--9 in the 11th.
Opportunity, like a rolling die, is many sided, however. The double-dog dare that was Game 6 became one of glory for the champion Cardinals, the signature moment for a team that stood on the abyss so often over its last 50 games that it could paint the view from memory like Van Gogh could Arles. "It's fitting for this team to be remembered for that game," said St. Louis outfielder Allen Craig, who hit home runs to start the Game 6 rally and to break a third-inning tie in Game 7. "We played with our backs against the wall for like two months. Every game was like the playoffs just to get in. So to win it like this—after being one strike away from losing—is a fitting way to end our season."
Even bigger than a championship was the opportunity for the rest of us to rediscover the very best kind of baseball: the baseball you never see coming. The kind that, as Washington could tell you, was too long in the making and could take awhile before it again comes this way.
From the last day of the regular season to the last day of the World Series—Sept. 28 through Oct. 28—baseball gave us 31 flavors of unexpected excitement. It began with The Night of 162, the single most exciting night in the history of the game as measured by sheer volume. As late as 10:39 p.m. Eastern time on the final night of the season all four Division Series matchups remained undecided. As late as 11:39 p.m. the wild-card spots in each league remained uncertain. But in an unforgettable sequence across three theaters of engagement—Atlanta, Baltimore and St. Petersburg—three one-run games that were decided in the last inning ended within 25 minutes of one another: The Braves lost to the Phillies 4--3 at 11:40 p.m., the Red Sox lost to the Orioles 4--3 at 12:02 a.m. and the Rays beat the Yankees 8--7 three minutes later. Only then were the Cardinals and the Rays ushered into the postseason.
It turned out to be the prelude to a magnum opus of postseasons. Never before had more games been needed to determine a champion (38 out of a possible 41, matching 2003). Never before had so many games been decided by one run (13).
The 31 days also offered four sudden-death games, including the first World Series Game 7 in nine years (the longest wait since the best-of-seven format was permanently adopted, in 1922), the first pitcher to win two sudden-death games in one postseason (St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter, the NLDS Game 5 and World Series Game 7 winner), the first batter to drive in 21 postseason runs (St. Louis third baseman David Freese, the NLCS and World Series MVP) and, in the company of Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, the third player to hit three homers in a World Series game (St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols).
All 31 days happened without any of the teams with the nine biggest payrolls in baseball winning a postseason series. What drove the excitement of October was not payrolls or big markets or controversy or umpires or television ratings or off-the-field issues. It was about just the baseball, pure and simple. It was certified organic.
One thing you tell yourself," said 41-year-old Texas reliever Darren Oliver after Game 6, "is not to start counting the outs."
Outs are not like seconds or minutes or even heartbeats. What makes baseball great is that they cannot be counted with any regularity. Unconstrained by time, they can come quickly, as they did for Carpenter over six innings in Game 7, or they can come maddeningly slow, as they did for Texas the night before in that Game 6 epic.
The Rangers (51 seasons and still counting) are the oldest existing franchise without a world championship, a futility that appeared to be coming to an end in Game 6. They led 7--4 with, for those counting, five outs to go and the ball in the hands of lefthander Derek Holland, who had obtained 30 outs in the Series without giving up a run and while allowing only two hits. But then Craig raked him for a home run, raising the possibility of a comeback.
Still, Texas handed a 7--5 lead to its closer, Neftali Feliz, to start the ninth inning. He struck out the first batter. Two outs to go.
Pujols—whom Washington had spent most of the Series avoiding like a contagion, ordering his pitchers to intentionally walk the slugger five times—rapped his first hit outside of his five-hit, three-home-run Game 3 masterpiece, a double. Feliz then walked Lance Berkman on four pitches. The Rangers would walk 41 batters in the seven games, a World Series worst. "Walks," reliever Mike Adams says, "hurt us. They were the difference in the Series. It's tough to get away with so many walks."
Feliz recovered to strike out Craig, and Freese stepped in to bat.
An ingredient that made this World Series nostalgically exciting was the lack of familiarity between the two pennant winners. By the dumb luck of interleague draws, which have otherwise eroded the tension of October, the Cardinals and the Rangers had played each other only once before, way back in 2004, and never in St. Louis.
It sounded shockingly old-fashioned, like asking an operator to place a call, when Washington explained two days after Pujols's three-homer game why he kept walking him: "I've never seen Albert Pujols before other than on TV. It's my first time seeing him. And what he did the other night, no, I wouldn't mess with that."
Hitters had to figure out pitchers on the fly, the way Mantle did Gibson and Jackson did Seaver. So it was that Freese came to see Feliz and his 98-mph fastball for the first time with two outs in the ninth inning. Feliz worked ahead, 1 and 2. He took time between pitches, taking in air by the gulps. One strike away. A fastball. Outside corner. Thigh high.
"It was a pitch I make a lot," Feliz said after Game 7, having elected not to take questions after Game 6. "I put it where I wanted it. He got good contact. That's all that happened."
Freese drove it hard to rightfield. For a moment the baseball was in the air like a flipped coin, with the World Series about to come down to a hard either/or truth. If Nelson Cruz catches the ball, the Rangers are world champions and the Cardinals are reduced to the dustbin of forgettable good teams that tried really hard. If not....
"I thought Cruz was going to catch it," Washington said.
Cruz, though, was positioned dangerously shallow for the situation—a "no-doubles" situation in which outfielders are instructed to make it impossible for a ball to go over their heads without leaving the yard. There was a second problem: Cruz did not read the ball well. Its carry and speed seemed to briefly catch him off guard. And then a third problem: He drifted rather than sprinted, failing to make up the ground and time he had already forfeited. It was too late. The ball cleared his outstretched, gloved left hand and banged off the bottom of the wall. Both runners scored. Freese was on third with a triple. The Rangers' lead was gone.
"I thought he was in good position," Washington said. "He froze, and the ball took off. If he just takes the right route, it's an easy out. You've got to stay behind the baseball, and he didn't. I thought it was going to be caught. It didn't turn out that way."
Cruz had a different take. Asked if he could do anything different about the play if he had it to do all over again, he said he would have positioned himself deeper.
In the wisdom of Washington, such opportunities are precious because they can be so long in returning. But, amazingly, after Josh Hamilton hit a two-run home run in the top of the 10th to give the Rangers a 9--7 lead, Texas was again one strike away from victory. This time Lance Berkman dumped a 2-and-2 pitch from reliever Scott Feldman into centerfield for a run-scoring single and a 9--9 tie.
There would be no third chance for Texas. Freese smote a full-count changeup from Mark Lowe over the centerfield wall in the bottom of the 11th. That put Freese on the Mount Rushmore of World Series walk-off homers when facing elimination, right there with Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski (1960), Carlton Fisk (1975) and Kirby Puckett (1991).
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa used 22 players to win the game, exhausting his available position players by the end of the eighth and using five players alone in the leadoff spot. It was a tour de force by the man who practically invented the modern bullpen—and, as it turned out, a masterful coda to La Russa's 33-year managerial career. On Monday he announced his retirement, at age 67, leaving the game with three World Series titles and more victories (2,728) than all but two managers in history. Game 6 was also a reversal of La Russa's embarrassment in Game 5, when he twice botched phone calls to his bullpen and was left with the wrong pitchers on the mound—including an awkward moment when he greeted righthander Lance Lynn, who had sprinted in from the pen, with something you never want to say on the mound: "Oh, what are you doing here?"
Game 6 and Phonegate were the extremes of a postseason in which the way games were managed often was as entertaining as how they were played. La Russa (75) and Washington (70) each made more pitching changes than any other manager in postseason history. Because of the spasmodic bullpen usage, often brought on by poor starting pitching, and slews of intentional walks and bunts, every game seemed to have an afterlife—or a long, difficult period to digest, like a large meal eaten before bedtime.
After Phonegate, a 4--2 defeat for St. Louis, La Russa had a message for his team that couldn't wait. He gathered the players for a quick meeting in the visiting clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark. "I'm telling you guys," La Russa told them, "just keep busting your butts and in a couple of days we'll be cracking champagne at home. And you guys deserve it. We cracked champagne in Houston, in Philadelphia and in Milwaukee. This is your year, and you deserve to celebrate at home in a couple of days."
Sure enough, La Russa turned out to be right. The Cardinals seemed to be guided by higher forces, such as the threatening rain clouds that forced a second day off between Games 5 and 6 and allowed Carpenter, rather than righthander Kyle Lohse, to take the ball in Game 7. Or the All-Star Game home run that Rangers ace C.J. Wilson gave up to Prince Fielder, a blast that gave the National League a win and left St. Louis, a second-place team that finished six games out of first place, with home field advantage for Game 7. (Home teams are 9--0 in World Series Game 7s since the 1979 Orioles lost to the Pirates.) Or the historic September collapse of the Braves, the only reason the Cardinals even saw October.
On Aug. 24, St. Louis was 10½ games behind Atlanta, the wild-card leader, with just the 12th-best record in baseball. Yet like the 2010 champion Giants, the Cardinals were at their best at the end, winning 34 of their final 50 games. These Cardinals and the 1969 Mets are the only teams to come from 10 games out or more in August to win the World Series.
Few world championships were so late in the dreaming, let alone the making. On The Night of 162, with St. Louis able to squeak into the postseason with a win and an Atlanta loss, Carpenter welcomed back pitching coach Dave Duncan, who for five weeks had left the club to be with his wife, Jeanine, after she underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Carpenter would start that night for the Cardinals in Houston, and he gave his mentor a hug and said, "Dunc, I'm going to make your job real easy tonight. I'm going nine. You don't need anybody else."
Carpenter indeed went nine, throwing a two-hit shutout. Last Friday night he stood in the Cardinals' clubhouse dripping champagne, a bona fide big-game pitcher (9--2, 3.05 ERA in 15 postseason starts) who this year added a 1--0 NLDS clincher and the 6--2 World Series clincher to his résumé. At 36, and bearing a total 2011 workload of 2731/3 innings, he was the most stable property in an unstable postseason. "Back in Houston that night," Carpenter said, "I don't think we even dreamed this would happen, because back then we were just trying to find a way to get in."
Once in, they found any which way to get 11 wins in '11 to win their 11th title. They also lost seven times, the most ever for a world champion. It was a run befitting 31 days of madness: rarely pretty, often unpredictable, never easy. These Cardinals were exactly the right team for these days of opportunity.
"IT'S FITTING FOR THIS TEAM TO BE REMEMBERED FOR THAT GAME," CRAIG SAID OF THE CARDINALS' WIN IN THE GAME 6 EPIC. "WE PLAYED WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL FOR LIKE TWO MONTHS."
THE GAMES IN THIS EPIC POSTSEASON WERE LIKE LARGE MEALS EATEN BEFORE BEDTIME—THEY REQUIRED LONG, DIFFICULT PERIODS TO DIGEST.
Photograph by MATT SLOCUM/AP
FLIGHT OF THE BUSCH MEN In the previous 30 days, the Cardinals had staged clinching celebrations in Houston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee; finally, last Friday, they got to let loose in their own house.
TURNING POINTS Several fly balls will haunt Washington (far left) this winter: Cruz's ninth-inning misplay in Game 6, Craig's home run over Cruz's glove in Game 7 (above), and the homer Craig leaped to rob from Cruz three innings later (right).
JOHN BIEVER (MIDDLE)
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER (CARPENTER)
THE CARDS HAVE BEEN DEALT Carpenter (left) sealed his rep as a big-game pitcher; La Russa (below) was able to retire at the top of his game.
CHRIS LEE/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (LA RUSSA)
[See caption above]