Commentary

Rangers can't finish off Cardinals

Twice, Texas was one strike away, but couldn't end it and now is headed to Game 7

Updated: October 28, 2011, 11:51 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- The Texas Rangers had their World Series fairy-tale ending, if only for a few moments.

In the top of the 10th inning Thursday night, Josh Hamilton stepped to the plate and drove a 98 mph Jason Motte fastball over the right-field fence, sending a wave of euphoria through the visiting dugout and into the Busch Stadium box seats, where club president and CEO Nolan Ryan looked ready to party like it was 1969.

Hamilton, a devout Christian, took the development in stride, because he had received advance notice from a higher power. During the short walk from the on-deck circle to home plate, he had a conversation with the Lord, whom he said told him he was about to go deep. As Hamilton settled into the batter's box and knocked the dirt off his spikes, he had a clear understanding of what was about to unfold.

"He told me, 'You haven't hit one in a while, and this is the time you're going to,'" said Hamilton, who had gone 65 at-bats in the postseason without a home run. "You know what? I probably had the most relaxed, peaceful at-bat I've had of the whole series at that moment. It's pretty cool. You ought to try it sometime."

As Hamilton recalled the sequence of events in the Texas clubhouse after Game 6, he ruefully took note of the missing piece in the discussion: God promised him a four-bagger, but made no mention of the Rangers' bullpen collapse or St. Louis third baseman David Freese's flair for the dramatic.

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
AP Photo/Matt SlocumThe Rangers were so close to celebrating a title. Instead, they had to watch the Cardinals celebrate forcing a Game 7.

"There was a period at the end of [the sentence]," Hamilton said. "He didn't say, 'You're going to hit it and you're going to win.'"

One of the most exciting games in postseason history ended with jubilant Cardinals fans spilling into the streets, where horns honked as if the team had already won the World Series. St. Louis faithful who thought Albert Pujols was making perhaps his final plate appearance in a Cardinals uniform in the seventh inning were treated to encore appearances in the ninth and 10th. And now they'll enjoy four or five more Pujols at-bats Friday night.

For every team that comes from nowhere to win, like the Cards did in Game 6, someone in the opposing clubhouse winds up feeling like emotional roadkill. There are games you lose and losses that crush your spirit, but it takes a quantum leap to relate to the soul-crushing ordeal the Rangers experienced in their 10-9, 11-inning defeat Thursday. An October game hasn't taken this many late twists since Byung-Hyun Kim was in his prime.

"I've never seen anything like it, and I've never been a part of anything like it," said Texas reliever Darren Oliver, an 18-year big league veteran. "There were so many highs and lows. This game was crazy."

The Rangers, like most successful teams, make frequent reference to their "resilience." But a collapse of this magnitude calls for an industrial-strength brand of bounce-back power.

Nelson Cruz suffered a strained groin in his final at-bat of the evening, and Mike Napoli hurt his ankle on a slide into second base. But the psychic damage of blowing 7-4 and 9-7 leads was considerably worse, and you have to wonder whether the Rangers can regroup in time to reassert themselves on the Cardinals' home turf.

There were small lapses early in the game that came back to haunt the Rangers. They stranded runners in scoring position in four of the first five innings, and Michael Young made two costly errors at first base.

Twice, the Rangers were a strike away from a pig-pile in the infield, only to watch the Cardinals storm back. In the bottom of the ninth, Freese lined a two-run triple over the outstretched glove of Cruz, who pursued the ball awkwardly as he neared the fence.

"I saw it pretty well," Cruz said. "I thought I had a shot, but the ball kind of took off at the wall."

In hindsight, if Cruz regretted anything, it was not playing Freese a few steps deeper.

In the 10th inning, the Rangers were clinging to a 9-8 lead when they intentionally walked Pujols to pitch to Lance Berkman, who looped a 2-2 cutter from Scott Feldman into center field for an RBI single to tie the game. If Feldman had it to do over, he would have thrown the pitch a little more inside. But the Rangers had no regrets about bypassing Pujols to face Berkman.

"You kind of pick your poison there," Feldman said. "They're both tremendous hitters, obviously. But with Albert, we had said, 'This guy's not gonna beat us,' so it was pretty much a no-brainer. Not to take anything away from Berkman, but Albert is kind of a different animal."

It was a rough night overall for the Texas bullpen. Alexi Ogando, who has allowed 14 baserunners in 2 1/3 innings in the World Series, appears lost at precisely the wrong time. And closer Neftali Feliz failed to do the job with a title in his grasp. After Feliz threw 22 pitches in the ninth, Rangers manager Ron Washington decided to have Oliver try to nail it down in the 10th. All he needed to do was retire Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and a pitcher to end the game, since St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had exhausted his supply of position players. But Oliver couldn't get the job done.

Late in the evening, Hamilton, David Murphy and Cruz gathered in the outfield during a pitching change and acknowledged they were taking part in a game destined to be a classic. Murphy stopped and savored the moment, the way a man might file away his wedding day or the birth of a child. It wasn't a matter of taking things for granted -- just a very human reaction to a seminal event in life.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonJosh Hamilton knew he was going to hit a homer. He didn't know it wouldn't win the game.

"The game happens very quickly," Murphy said. "So when you're in a moment where you're so close, you want to take a step back for just a split second and look at your surroundings and remember that moment and how you felt.

"You don't think about the possibilities other than the positive possibilities. You don't think a guy is going to hit a triple to tie up the game in the ninth inning. You don't think a guy is going to tie up the game a second time. All you're thinking is, 'We're this close. We're an out away. We're a strike away.' It didn't happen, but there's tomorrow."

While the Rangers alternately took leads and gave them away, few players experienced greater emotional swings than Matt Harrison. One minute he was about to celebrate on the field with his teammates. And then, suddenly, it was time to think about lacing them up and starting the deciding Game 7 against (most likely) Chris Carpenter.

Say this for the Texas players: Barely a half-hour after the game, they were standing at their lockers, waxing philosophical about the loss and looking ahead. According to Young, Washington's postgame message consisted of, "Keep your head up. See you tomorrow." At this stage of the season, he doesn't have to remind the players what's at stake.

The Rangers haven't lost two straight games since dropping three in a row from Aug. 23-25. This would not be a good time to start.

"Everybody's talked about how we've done such a great job bouncing back," Murphy said. "[Friday] will be a true test of that. I don't think anybody is going to come to the park for Game 7 of the World Series saying, 'I wish we could have played better yesterday or won that game.' It's going to be full steam ahead."

And if things don't work out, the Rangers will have a long, cold, empty winter to relive it.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter .

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer