ST. LOUIS (AP) – David Freese swooped in, expecting Elvis Andrus to bunt. He did, but the ball trickled wide of the line.
The St. Louis third baseman scooped up the foul, scanned the crowd and spotted his target sitting near the Texas dugout: a man in the front row wearing a Rangers jacket, with a glove.
Freese flipped him the souvenir, drawing a big smile and making yet another friend in his hometown.
Then again, why not? There was plenty to share in this World Series.
A Game 6 that ranked among baseball’s greatest thrillers. A three-homer performance by Albert Pujols that’s probably the best hitting show in postseason history. Ron Washington running in place, Tony La Russa reacting in dismay at a ball that got away. Everyone learning how to chant Nap-Oh-Lee!
Oh, and a Rally Squirrel on the scoreboard and a telephone mix-up in the bullpen.
“I told you it was going to be a great series — and it was,” Texas slugger Josh Hamilton said.
Hamilton put Texas ahead with an RBI double in the first inning Friday night in Game 7. Freese and the Cardinals, however, would not be denied. A night after twice rallying when it was one strike from elimination, St. Louis came back to win the championship with a 6-2 victory.
“Now that we’ve won it, it makes yesterday greater,” La Russa said.
Said Hamilton: “It was actually fun to watch and fun to see. You hate it, but it happened.”
An October for fans cherish, for sure. As for how many saw these games nationwide, the numbers will tell. Going into the finale, TV ratings were up 11 percent over last year when San Francisco beat Texas.
Even before the opener, many observers predicted this Series would be a dud because it lacked big-market teams. Minus the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, some said, it would attract little attention.
Inning by inning, it got more intriguing.
“I know there’s been a lot of conversation about ratings,” Commissioner Bud Selig said before Game 7. “Some of it, in my opinion … was misinformed.”
No mistaking that it was quite a run for baseball.
Exactly a month before the Cardinals won their 11th championship, they clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. The night of Sept. 28 was riveting — St. Louis capped a comeback from 10 1/2 games down to overtake Atlanta for the NL wild card, Tampa Bay completed its late surge to beat out Boston for the AL wild card.
The playoffs produced their moments, too. The one that brought winning and losing into a tight focus: Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals celebrating their 1-0 win over Roy Halladay in Philadelphia while star slugger Ryan Howard writhed on the ground, having torn his Achilles tendon during a game-ending groundout.
Soon after, the first Game 7 in the World Series since 2002.
“Somebody said on television, baseball has had a coming-out party since Labor Day. I don’t think so. I think it’s always there,” Selig said. “It’s produced for this country really a remarkable chain of events.”
In a year punctuated by historic comebacks and epic collapses, it’d be easy to say the biggest rally of all belonged to baseball. That’s what many like to say whenever the game shows up well.
Is it true, will that be so?
Selig insists the sport already is more popular than ever. Major league attendance slightly increased this season, ending three seasons of drops. The Chicago Cubs have renewed hope for next year after hiring Theo Epstein to oversee the club, a new ballpark is waiting in Florida for the team that will soon officially become the Miami Marlins.
Certainly a back-and-forth World Series boosted interest, helped by the two most magical words in sports: Game 7.
“There isn’t anybody on this team, the other team, too, that when you’re a young kid you don’t think about winning the World Series, and it’s always in Game 7,” La Russa said.
Freese delivered the key hit, a two-run double that tied it in the first inning. The MVP of the NL championship series wound up adding the World Series MVP trophy.
He saved the Cardinals’ season in Game 6, lining a two-strike, two-out, two-run triple in the ninth and then hitting a winning home run in the 11th.
An inning before Freese connected, Hamilton homered to put Texas ahead. Had the Rangers held on, mostly likely Mike Napoli would’ve been picked the Series MVP. So, so close.
Freese estimated he got about 45 minutes of sleep as Thursday night turned into Friday. A lot to think about for a player who quit baseball out of high school because it wasn’t fun anymore. From done to donating his bat and jersey to the Hall of Fame.
“I’m trying to soak this all in,” he said. “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.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)