ST. LOUIS -- If the Rangers can still win the World Series after what happened to them on Thursday night in Game 6, they would become the truest kind of champions.
The Rangers were one strike away from winning the World Series twice. They had a three-run lead in the seventh, a two-run lead in the eighth, a two-run lead in the ninth and another two-run lead in the 10th. They finally lost, 10-9, in the 11th inning on a walk-off home run by Cardinals third baseman David Freese.
After this one, the Rangers will be spending the remainder of the overnight hours at the Heartbreak Hotel. The championship was within their grasp. It slipped away, in a big way.
The Cardinals showed what they were made of, although this display was nothing completely new. This was the same club that came back from 10 1/2 games back in the National League Wild Card race to overtake the Braves. This was the club that won two NL postseason series, both times on the road and both times as underdogs. Its heart, individually and collectively, was clearly on display.
For the Rangers to come back from this kind of devastating defeat, their own heart will have to come into play. This team has never lacked for will and effort over the past two seasons, but this may be the ultimate test.
GOING THE DISTANCE
The World Series is going to a Game 7 for the ninth time in the past 30 years.
There were plenty of moments to regret Thursday night: two costly errors at first base by Michael Young, the leader and focal point of this club; a middle-inning managerial decision by Ron Washington that seemed uncharacteristically passive; and an inability to hold leads by the usually sturdy Texas bullpen. Although they all sort of paled in comparison for Texas the moment when Freese's blast off reliever Mark Lowe cleared the fence in center.
Washington might be criticized for yet another intentional walk to Albert Pujols, this one in the 10th, but that shouldn't be a big deal. Lance Berkman followed that walk with a game-tying single. But Washington has been consistent in this regard, and he has been consistently right. First base was open; there was a place to put Pujols. As good as Berkman is, nobody is in Pujols' class, and Washington did what was necessary.
In the fifth inning, though, Washington passed on an opportunity to pad a 4-3 lead. He chose not to use a pinch-hitter, leaving starting pitcher Colby Lewis up with two outs and the bases loaded. Lewis struck out, and subsequently lasted only 1 1/3 innings more.
"[Lewis] was throwing the ball extremely well. We had the lead and he was throwing the ball well, so I went with Colby," Washington said. "He went out the next inning and got us through it.
"We went into the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead with our closer [Neftali Feliz] out there. So you always want to put runs on the board, but you've got to realize the other team got pitchers out there executing pitches, too, and getting hitters out. But you know, right there, I felt good."
The net result was an agonizing loss. To be one pitch away from the ultimate baseball victory on two occasions and have victory snatched away at the last possible moment is not an experience that should be left to the weak of will or spirit. The Rangers have demonstrated a weakness in neither area, but this was no ordinary extra-inning setback.
"Well, you know, I understand that it's not over until you get the last out, and I was just sitting there praying that we'd get that last out, and we didn't get it," Washington said. "And you have to tip your hat to the Cardinals, the way they fought tonight and took the game from us."
Asked what he told his team after this potentially demoralizing defeat, Washington responded:
"Well, just tell them we battled. You know, it's not that easy to win a world championship, as we found out tonight. We had the right people in the right spot, and they beat us. You've got to give them credit. They fought tonight. They came back, and they won the ballgame. That's all I had to tell them.
"We'll bounce back. We've been in some tough situations before. We've always responded, and I expect us to respond [Friday night].
"We've just got to come back and fight just as hard, because they certainly will."
So the Rangers, twice on the doorstep of a championship, now must produce the ultimate get-up-off-the-floor game. On Thursday night, they covered the whole emotional range, from the edge of elation to complete deflation.
Now comes the truest test. Competition at this level is partly about getting knocked down, because baseball knocks down the best of them, figuratively at least, sometimes literally. The rest of the story is about getting up. The Rangers were knocked down in a big way Thursday night. The part about getting up is still in front of them on baseball's biggest stage: Game 7 of the World Series.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.