ST. LOUIS -- It was so improbable, so unthinkable, that it had to happen. Despite massive deficits in August and September, despite playing four elimination games in the postseason, despite twice being down to their last strike the night before, the St. Louis Cardinals are the World Series champions for 2011 after winning Game 7, 6-2, over the Texas Rangers on Friday.
The Cards won the first World Series Game 7 since 2002 and brought home the 11th World Series championship in franchise history. They are the fifth Wild Card team, and the first since 2004, to win the title. St. Louis triumphed behind six-plus impressive innings from ace Chris Carpenter, more big hits by David Freese and Allen Craig, and a return to form by a bullpen that had sprung some leaks lately.
A journey that started in the spring with a star pitcher's blown elbow and an unsuccessful contract negotiation ended with an enormous Friday night party in downtown St. Louis. More than eight months of work paid off in the best possible way, with a celebration deep into the evening on the field and in the clubhouse. Three hours after the game, club personnel remained on the field at Busch Stadium taking in the moment.
The Cardinals won their second World Series title in six seasons in front of a stadium-record announced crowd of 47,399 and plenty more stationed outside the park -- in Ballpark Village, in hotel rooms across the street, and even atop a nearby parking garage. As the game ended, fans poured into the stadium from outside to be a part of the festivities.
"When you play in a city like this, where we have the greatest fans in the world, they come out every day and they allowed us to do what we did this year," general manager John Mozeliak said. "So I thank all of them and all our employees, because without them, we're not standing here. So thank you."
Red letter day
Oddly, the Cardinals won Friday's game with a minimum of hold-your-breath moments and with only one early comeback. Maybe those were just all used up one night earlier, when they twice were down to their last strike before winning Game 6 in 11 innings. Or maybe the baseball gods just decided that for once, this team and its fans deserved not to have to sit through white-knuckle theater. After all, there was enough of that over the previous weeks and months.
The Cards lost their top starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, before the first Spring Training game was played. They played without key players like Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols and Freese for significant stretches of the season. They were 10 1/2 games out of the National League Wild Card in late August.
It was never easy, never predictable. Even when they won, it was difficult -- best epitomized a night earlier when the Cardinals came back from five deficits to force a seventh game.
"It was overwhelming," said manager Tony La Russa. "We were on the edge game after game after game. You might lose one, but as it got closer, elimination games, the character on this club is off the charts. And we are more talented I think than some people realize, especially as we got healthy. But you play with that urgency, it's a little scary at times and it takes a lot out of you, but it's really fun to compete that way."
And yet it ended in a title. Sure, it wasn't really comfortable until Yadier Molina's RBI single provided a little breathing room in the seventh, making the score 6-2. But for one night, the Cardinals and their fans got to enjoy the moment.
That's thanks in large part to Carpenter, who did hero's work. Pitching on three days' rest for the second time in his career -- the first, in the NL Division Series against the Phillies, didn't go so well -- he pitched six-plus excellent innings for his second win of the series and the third World Series win of his career.
"You can't say enough good things about the guy," said Lance Berkman. "He's such a big game pitcher. What he's able to do goes beyond his stuff. The way he competes, the way he controls the game, the way he studies a lineup, knows how to pitch to it."
Carpenter fell behind, 2-0, on a walk and a pair of doubles in the first inning, and that was the last time anything went the Rangers' way. St. Louis responded immediately, behind Freese -- of course. Matt Harrison walked a pair of batters with two outs in the bottom of the first, and Freese doubled to center to tie the score.
Two innings later, Craig hit a solo homer that put the Cards ahead for good with yet another go-ahead hit. By then, Carpenter was settling in. He made it through the third and fourth without a hit, worked around a single in the fifth and finished the sixth thanks to a home-run-stealing catch from Craig in left field.
St. Louis bolstered its lead with significant help from the Texas pitching staff. Three walks and two hit batsmen added up to a two-run fifth that was more than enough, and then Molina provided the insurance in the seventh.
"We caught [Carpenter] a little bit by surprise there in the first inning," said Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. "But he did settle down. You can never get comfortable. I think we got the feeling that most teams felt during the season when they played us."
Carpenter hit for himself in the sixth before facing one batter in the seventh inning before being lifted. From there, the Redbirds' bullpen looked like the stifling unit it was through the first two rounds of the postseason. Arthur Rhodes and Octavio Dotel tag-teamed the seventh, Lance Lynn pitched a nifty eighth, and Jason Motte closed it out.
The Cardinals improved to 8-3 in seven-game World Series, and closed out their second title at the current Busch Stadium. The 11th championship in Cards history is perhaps the most unbelievable.
"We're World Series champions, and nobody can take that away from us," Berkman said. "What makes that even sweeter was the manner in which we won it. Hollywood would have a hard time scripting something [like this]. You hear that sometimes, but it's true with this team. The reality of it is way better than anything you could make up about the team."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.