ST. LOUIS -- Even after it was over, they still couldn't grasp it.
Even as the fireworks shot through the sky, even as the World Series trophy sat on a podium at second base, they still weren't sure exactly what they'd done or how they'd done it.
Mere humans can only comprehend so much, you know. So how were the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals supposed to comprehend this?
Only 24 hours earlier, they were down to the last strike of their magical season in two different innings -- and lived. And now here they were on the last Friday of October, hugging everyone within hugging range, pulling on their championship T-shirts, spraying that sweet Mount Pleasant Brut Imperial.
Here they were, the most improbable World Series champions who ever lived, a 6-2 Game 7 win over the Texas Rangers etched in the scorebooks, the championship caps already perched on their heads. And it still didn't make sense -- even to the men who had made this impossible dream come true.
"It has to be destiny. There's no other way to explain it," said center fielder Skip Schumaker, on the night his team won the World Series. "I can't believe it happened. I feel like it went so quick. It hasn't really had a chance to sink in, what we're really doing here. I just hope in the next couple of days we'll have a chance to think about what just happened. It's amazing."
"Amazing" is as good a word as any for it, too, because there has never been a World Series champion like the 2011 Cardinals. It's that simple.
They should have been dead, buried, forgotten weeks ago. They should have spent October in a golf cart or a fishing boat, miles from the seats of Busch Stadium. They had no business still playing baseball. But the cool thing was no one was more aware of that than them.
"We're supposed to be home, watching the World Series," said a jubilant man by the name of Albert Pujols, on a Friday evening he'll never forget. "And now we're world champions."
And what could possibly have summed up their improbable saga better than a phrase that now will bond them all forever:
One strike away.
In the history of baseball, only one other team has ever done what these Cardinals have just done. Only one other team -- the '86 Mets -- ever tumbled into that one-strike-away abyss in a World Series and survived to pop the champagne bottles.
So think about that. In the first 106 World Series ever played, only those '86 Mets ever got down to their last strike and then won it all. Then this team found itself in that mess twice in two innings Thursday.
But for this group, what more fitting script could these men ever have written for themselves -- in a season in which they were 10½ games out with 31 to play, 8½ back with 21 to play, and three games out with five to play? No team in modern history could possibly have understood the expression "near-death experience" better than this one.
"That game [Thursday] night was our shining moment," said Lance Berkman, a guy who was responsible for one of those two life-saving "one strike away" hits. "That game was a perfect reflection of what this team embodies -- just that never-say-die mindset. Keep fighting until they finally put you away. But nobody could put us away. And that's why we're standing here."
As he stood on the outfield grass and uttered these words, thousands of Cardinals fans were still frozen in their seats an hour after the final out, unable to pull themselves away from this field where impossible dreams came true, unwilling to let go of this powerful, joyful moment. And how could you blame them?
But for all Berkman and his friends knew, these people might have been there since Thursday, still attempting to absorb the greatest World Series game of their lifetimes.
"A lot of people I talked to couldn't sleep after that game," Berkman said. "It was just such an emotional thing. And a lot of people in this [uniform] couldn't sleep very well, either."
And he was one of them. He plopped into bed afterward and lay there for an hour, the adrenaline still flowing, he said. Then he bolted out of bed a few hours later, at 8 a.m., swept up again in "all the emotion of where we were."
We took an informal survey of the clubhouse Friday night. We found many players who said they couldn't go to sleep until 4:30 a.m., 5 a.m. And there was one man who couldn't make his eyes close until after the sun had come up.
"I got like 45 minutes of sleep last night," said the man who had just become the latest World Series MVP, David Freese. "I didn't get to sleep until around 8 a.m. It was hard, man. I just couldn't understand what was really going on."
Every one of them, it seemed, carried the magic potion of a special night with them when they burst through the ballpark doors that night -- "and I don't think it ever really went away," said their hitting coach, Mark McGwire.
"I still had it this morning," McGwire said. "I walked around the city earlier today, and there was still that aura in the city. And I don't think it left. There was just that buzz. There was just that feeling, that energy. People were so up."
Then they all lugged that aura right back into the ballpark with them Friday night, and watched their team go out and win the World Series. Show a little faith, and there's magic in the night. And this was one magic act these people will be cheering forever.
As this team for the ages took the field Friday night, the men who trotted out there were still swept up in that feeling, that this was where they were supposed to be.
"If this team was supposed to win this thing," said second baseman Nick Punto, "we were going to win it in a Game 7. Right? I mean, there was no other way. The story was written."
And if you believe in destiny, as so many of these men had come to believe, then what were you supposed to make of the raindrops that came splattering out of the sky Wednesday?
How could you not wonder about the meaning of a rainout that would push back this World Series for a day -- a day that made it possible for the Cardinals to start their ace, Chris Carpenter, in a Game 7 that would define their season? If there had been no rain, there would have been no Carpenter. Freaky.
"The baseball gods," Schumaker said, "were working in our favor."
Unfortunately, there were a few minutes when they weren't sure about what those baseball gods had in mind. Starting on three days' rest for only the second time in his career, Carpenter scuffled with his command in the first inning, allowed the first four hitters to reach base and fell behind 2-0 faster than you could say "Here we go again."
But then Freese -- who else? -- doubled in two runs in the bottom of the first to tie this game up. And Carpenter began to rediscover his rhythm and control of all three pitches. After that, he would spend the rest of his night reminding America why he's arguably the best big-game starter of his generation.
He has now won nine postseason games -- more than any active pitcher. He went 4-0 in this miraculous October. And his win on this night would make him only the second Cardinals starter in the expansion era to win more than once in any World Series. The other? That would be Bob Gibson (in both 1964 and '67).
"When he starts a game like this, we feel like we're going to win," said his buddy, Adam Wainwright. "His competitiveness, his ferocity out there is probably unmatched."
Until this night, no pitcher in history -- not Pedro Martinez, not John Smoltz, not Curt Schilling, not a single October legend of the division-play era -- had ever won two winner-take-all games in a single postseason. But not anymore.
It's history. That's what Tony [La Russa] would say to us. It's history. Our whole ride to the playoffs. Just what we did to get here. It's improbable. It's unbelievable. All I can say is, we did it.
”--Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig
Just three weeks after outdueling Roy Halladay in a Game 5 showdown in the Division Series, Carpenter would perform a historic encore by squashing the Rangers, even without his killer stuff.
After those first four hitters, the Texas lineup would go just 3-for-18 against him until he exited in the seventh inning. And by then, he and his team had this game in nearly complete control -- for a change.
An Allen Craig home run put the Cardinals ahead 3-2 in the third inning. A bizarre two-run "rally" -- on precisely zero hits -- would make this a 5-2 game in the fifth. And after that, it was just a matter of counting down the outs.
Finally, at 10:15 p.m. in the Central time zone, the closer, Jason Motte, burst out of the bullpen gates and began the long trot to the mound where he would finish this off. Flash bulbs sparkled. Rally towels spun. The ballpark felt like an earthquake. This was it.
Down went Nelson Cruz on a fly ball to center. One out. Down went Mike Napoli on a bouncer to third base. Two out. Then David Murphy would loft a fly ball toward the track in left, and Allen Craig began running across the outfield grass, waiting for this baseball to come down.
"Honestly, when he hit it, I turned the wrong way," Craig said. "And then I had to look over my shoulder to pick it up again, and it was bouncing. And I was, like, 'Just catch it, please,' so we could win it. I mean, I knew I was going to catch it. But it was one of those moments where it's just slow-mo, and all I could think was, 'Just catch it.'"
But finally, this baseball would in fact return to earth. And finally, Allen Craig would squeeze it so tight that an hour later, he still hadn't let go. And finally, the St. Louis Cardinals had done what once seemed un-doable to everyone but them.
They had won this World Series. Just don't ask them how.
No team had ever won a World Series after finding itself 10½ games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25 or later. No team had ever won a World Series after finding itself 8½ games out in September. No team had ever won a World Series after being one strike away from extinction in back-to-back innings of the same World Series game. But this team is special.
These Cardinals needed the Phillies to sweep the Braves in the last week of September just to make this tournament at all. But it happened. These Cardinals had to beat Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay in Games 4 and 5 to topple the Phillies in the division series. But it happened.
These Cardinals had to find the strength to roar back to life after crushing losses to the Mets and Cubs and Astros down the stretch. But they found that strength. And the longer the rest of the sport let them keep breathing, the more dangerous this team became.
"It just kept going, kept going, kept going," Schumaker said. "So I mean, I knew there was a reason for this season. I just couldn't figure out what it was. Just certain things kept happening. And there's a reason for everything."
And then, on a crisp Friday night in October, in a city that worships them, they came to understand just what that reason was. Little did they know it was exactly what their manager, the one and only Tony La Russa, had been telling them they were up to for weeks.
"It's history," said Allen Craig. "That's what it is. It's history. That's what Tony would say to us. It's history. Our whole ride to the playoffs. Just what we did to get here. It's improbable. It's unbelievable. All I can say is, we did it."
Four months from now, when they get the band together in Jupiter, they may not look the same or feel the same. There may be no La Russa in the manager's office. There may be no Pujols in the No. 3 hole. So there may be a very different feeling than the one that swept over them at Busch Stadium on this night.
But that doesn't change what just happened here. They may never truly understand how it happened or why it happened. But this is a team that just completed one of the most amazing rides into the history books in the annals of this or any sport. All they had to do was win this one last Game 7 to make it happen.
"We had to win tonight," said McGwire, "because it doesn't become history unless you finish it off."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst