ST. LOUIS - Albert Pujols thrust both arms high in the air, even before he reached home plate.
It was only the first inning, and already it felt as if the St. Louis Cardinals were home free. Because after they had overcome so much just to get this far, what could stop them?
The Cardinals won a remarkable World Series they weren't even supposed to reach, beating the Texas Rangers 6-2 in Game 7 on Friday night with another key hit by hometown star David Freese and six gutty innings from Chris Carpenter.
Pushed to the brink, the Cardinals kept saving themselves. A frantic rush to reach the post-season on the final day. A nifty pair of comebacks in the playoffs. Two desperate rallies in Game 6.
"This whole ride, this team deserves this," said Freese, who added the Series MVP award to his trophy as the NL championship MVP.
A day after an epic game that saw them twice within one strike of elimination before winning 10-9 in 11 innings, the Cardinals captured their 11th World Series crown.
"It's hard to explain how this happened," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
After surging from 10 1/2 games down in the wild-card race late in the season, La Russa's team didn't dare mess with Texas, or any more drama in baseball's first World Series Game 7 since the Angels beat Giants in 2002.
Freese's two-run double tied it in the first, with Pujols celebrating as he scored. Good-luck charm Allen Craig hit a go-ahead homer in the third.
Given a chance to pitch by a Game 6 rainout and picked by La Russa earlier in the day to start on three days' rest, Carpenter and the tireless St. Louis bullpen closed it out.
No Rally Squirrel needed on this night, either. Fireworks and confetti rang out at Busch Stadium when Jason Motte retired David Murphy on a fly ball to end it.
"We just kept playing," Cardinals star Lance Berkman said.
Said La Russa: "If you watch the history of baseball, teams come back."
The Rangers, meanwhile, will spend the whole winter wondering how it all got away. Texas might dwell on it forever, in fact, or at least until Nolan Ryan & Co. can reverse a World Series slide that started with last year's five-game wipeout against San Francisco.
"We were close. Two times. Game 6. That's it," Texas pitcher Colby Lewis said.
Ryan left tightlipped. When a reporter tried to ask the Rangers president and part-owner a question, someone in his entourage said: "He's not talking."
Texas had not lost consecutive games since last August. These two defeats at Busch Stadium cost manager Ron Washington and the Rangers a chance to win their first title in the franchise's 51-year history.
Instead, Texas became the first team to lose the Series two straight years since Atlanta in 1991-92.
"Sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can't let it get away because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back," Washington said. "If there's one thing that happened in this World Series that I'll look back on is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story."
Added Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre: "We tried to come back today, but the momentum just took them."
"It's not a nice feeling, you know, being one strike away twice. I guess it's probably easier to lose four games in a row in a World Series, but being a strike away it's something that will be hard to forget," he said.
This marked the ninth straight time the home team had won Game 7 in the World Series. The wild-card Cardinals held that advantage over the AL West champions because the NL won the all-star game -- Texas could blame that on their own pitcher, C.J. Wilson, who took the loss in July.
A year full of inspiring rallies and epic collapses was encapsulated in Game 6. Freese was the star, with a tying triple in the ninth and a winning home run in the 11th. His two RBIs in the clincher gave him a post-season record 21.
The Cardinals won their first championship since 2006, and gave La Russa his third World Series title. They got there by beating Philadelphia in the first round of the NL playoffs, capped by Carpenter outduelling former Toronto Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay 1-0 in the deciding Game 5, and then topping Milwaukee in the NL championship series.
"I think the last month of the season, that's where it started," Pujols said. "Different guys were coming huge, getting big hits, and we carried that into the post-season and here we are, world champions."
By the time Yadier Molina drew a bases-loaded walk from starter Matt Harrison and Rafael Furcal was hit by a pitch from Wilson in relief, the crowd began to sense a championship was near.
The Cardinals improved to 8-3 in Game 7s of the Series, more wins than any other club. Yet fans here know their history well, and were aware this game could go either way -- Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang won 11-0 in 1934, but Whitey Herzog and his Cardinals lost 11-0 in 1985.
On this evening, all the stars aligned for St. Louis.
Starting in place of injured Matt Holliday, Craig hit his third homer of the Series and made a leaping catch at the top of the left field wall. Molina made another strong throw to nail a stray runner. And Carpenter steeled himself to pitch into the seventh, every bit an ace.
"It was in our grasp and we didn't get it," Washington said, referring to Game 6. "Tonight we fought hard for it and the Cardinals got it."
Pujols went 0 for 2, walked and was hit by a pitch in what could have been his last game with the Cardinals. Many think the soon-to-be free agent will remain in St. Louis.
"You know what? I'm not even thinking about that. I'm thinking about, you know, we're the world champions and I'm going to celebrate and whenever that time comes, you know, then we'll deal with it," he said.
Pujols did plenty of damage. His three-homer job in Game 3 was the signature performance of his career and perhaps the greatest hitting show in post-season history.
Dismissed by some as a dull Series even before it began because it lacked the big-market glamour teams, it got better inning by inning. Plus, a post-season first: A bullpen telephone mixup played a prominent role.
"I told you it was going to be a great series, and it was," Texas slugger Josh Hamilton said.
"I don't care what other people remember. We fell a little bit short," he said. "Hats off to the Cards, they did a great job, especially last night. It was actually fun to watch and fun to see. You hate it but it happened."
Craig hit a solo home run in the third, an opposite field fly to right that carried into the Cardinals bullpen and got their relievers dancing. The super-sub put St. Louis ahead 3-2 with his third homer of the Series. He was in the lineup only because Holliday sprained his right wrist on a pickoff play a night earlier and was replaced on the roster.
By then, the largest crowd at 6-year-old Busch Stadium was buzzing. The fans seemed a bit drained much earlier, maybe worn out from the previous night.
They grew hush in the first when Hamilton and Michael Young hit consecutive RBI doubles. Texas might have gotten more, but Ian Kinsler strayed too far off first base and was trapped by Molina's rocket throw.
Freese changed the mood in a hurry as St. Louis tied it in the bottom half. Pujols and Lance Berkman drew two-out walks and pitching coach Mike Maddux trotted to the mound while Freese stepped in to a standing ovation.
Freese rewarded his family and a ballpark full of new friends by lining a full-count floater to the wall in left centre for a two-run double. Harrison was in trouble, and Wilson began warming up after only 23 pitches.
Carpenter wasn't sharp at the outset, either. All over the strike zone, he started seven of the first 10 batters with balls. Pitching coach Dave Duncan made a visit in the second to check on the tall righty, lingering for a few extra words.
"I was hoping to have an opportunity to go ahead and pitch in that game and fortunately it worked out," Carpenter said. "It started off a little rough in the first. But I was able to collect myself, make some pitches and our guys did an awesome job to battle back. And I mean, it's just amazing."
NOTES: Texas set a Series record by walking 41 batters, one more than Florida in 1997. Of the 34 runs the Cardinals scored, 11 reached on walks and two more on hit batters. ... The crowd was 47,399. ... The Cardinals will play the first game of the 2012 season in North America, opening the Miami Marlins' new ballpark on April 4.