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SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS; Carpenter is sharp, earns win

They weren't even within a sniff of the wild-card race in late August. When they miraculously snuck into the playoffs, they pulled out of a 2-1 hole in the division series to stun the mighty Philadelphia Phillies. Then they lost the opener of the NLCS against Milwaukee. And, of course, they were a strike away -- twice -- Thursday night from losing the World Series.

Somehow, the St. Louis Cardinals survived all of it.

Putting the exclamation point on one of the most incredible combination of late-season and postseason runs in baseball history, the Cardinals won their 11th championship Friday night with a 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers in Game Seven at Busch Stadium.

"I was at first base with three outs to go and thinking about all the things we went through this year and how special this group of guys are," Cards first baseman Albert Pujols said. "To be able to do that and bring a championship to St. Louis is just amazing."

Ace Chris Carpenter gave up two first-inning runs and nothing more to gut out the victory while going six innings on three days rest. And, remember, he would not have even been able to go had Game Six not been rained out on Wednesday. That was yet another twist of fate that went the Cardinals' way in an October seemingly only marred by Monday's bullpen phone fiasco in Texas.

"It was huge for me to get the ball in this game," Carpenter said. "I just wanted to give my guys a chance, whether it was one inning, two innings, four, whatever. It didn't matter."

Hometown idol David Freese, the suburban St. Louis native who was the hero of the incredible Game Six comeback, clubbed a two-run double in the first and Allen Craig's solo homer in the third snapped a 2-2 tie and gave the Cardinals the lead for good.

For good measure, Craig climbed the left-field wall to rob Nelson Cruz of a home run in the top of the seventh.

A red-clad, ballpark record crowd of 47,399 -- and a few thousand more knotholing through the iron outfield gates -- waved their white towels and roared through the ninth inning as closer Jason Motte pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. David Murphy's fly ball to Craig in left was the final out and sparked a huge pileup of red-and-white shirted Cardinals on the infield and confetti showers around the park.

It was sweet retribution for Motte, who had seemingly lost the series when he gave up Josh Hamilton's two-run homer in the 10th inning of Game Six.

Freese was named the most valuable player of the series after batting .348 and driving in seven runs. He becomes just the sixth player ever to win MVP honors in the LCS and World Series, the first since Philadelphia's Cole Hamels in 2008. Freese's two-run double wiped out an early 2-0 Texas lead and gave him an all-time record of 21 RBIs in the postseason.

In the first Game Seven since 2002, the Cardinals became the ninth straight home team to win in the game's ultimate showdown. The road team has not won Game Seven since the Pittsburgh Pirates posted a 4-0 win at Baltimore in 1979.

The Cardinals also became the third team this century to rally from a 3-2 deficit and win the final two games of the series at home. That was also done by the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (against the New York Yankees) and 2002 Anaheim Angels (against San Francisco).

It was a devastating loss for the Rangers, who fell just short of the first championship in their 40-year history in Texas and lost the World Series for the second straight year.

Texas held the Cardinals to just two runs while winning Games Four and Five at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. They had a 7-4 lead with five outs to go in Game Six here and were still up, 7-5, with one strike left before Freese's two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth forced extra innings.

And they had a 9-8 lead in the 10th, again needing one strike to win before Lance Berkman's single tied the game again. They lost, 10-9, in the 11th on Freese's walk-off home run.

At least initially, Texas appeared undaunted by that cruel fate. The first four Rangers reached base with only a pickoff at first of Ian Kinsler by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina preventing a huge inning.

Josh Hamilton drove home the game's first run by roping an RBI double past a diving Pujols at first and Michael Young made it 2-0 by blooping a double to right in front of Berkman.

But Texas starter Matt Harrison couldn't stand the prosperity of the fast start even after retiring the first two hitters.

Harrison walked Pujols and Berkman to bring up Freese, who came to the plate with the crowd roaring and the center-field video board showing clips of his Game Six heroics.

Freese worked the count full and drove a pitch to the gap in left-center to score both runners and dramatically tie the game. It was the first time both teams had multi-run first innings in a Game Seven.

"I took a good approach in that at-bat, stuck with it and got the head of the bat out there and put it in the gap," Freese said. "That was a big turning point that kind of started the game over and got it back to even."

The Cardinals went ahead for good in the third when Craig drove an opposite-field laser into the bullpen in right over the leap at the wall of Cruz, who was heavily criticized for not going full-bore for Freese's game-tying triple the night before. It was the third homer of the series for Craig, who had burned the Rangers for RBI hits as a pinch-hitter in the first two games of the series.

From there, Carpenter took over. He got a huge assist from Craig's leap at the fence on Cruz's ball and gave up just one hit over innings 3-6. Carpenter was finally relieved after giving up David Murphy's ground-rule double leading off the seventh.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa made sure the bullpen phone was working and got through that inning as Arthur Rhodes and Octavio Dotel combined to get the next three hitters. Lance Lynn pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and that set the stage for Motte to redeem his shaky Game Six outing.

"All the emotions you have get bottled up over seven games," Berkman said. "Your stomach never settles down and now it's such a rush. It's an emotional time and I'm looking forward to finally sitting down. You can't imagine the exhiliration of finally winning it, especially how we did fighting the whole postseason."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com