ST. LOUIS -- It ended with a baseball soaring through the October sky.
Soaring toward a patch of resplendent green grass, located just beyond the center-field fence.
Soaring toward its place in the story books and the history books.
Soaring to its rightful spot alongside the most famous World Series walk-offs ever hit -- alongside Mazeroski, alongside Fisk, alongside Carter, alongside Gibson.
This was how Game 6 of the 2011 World Series would end Thursday night
With a man named David Freese hitting a home run that will never stop flying.
With fireworks exploding in the night.
With teammates sprinting toward home plate to meet the man who had saved their season.
With many of the 47,325 lucky humans who made up the largest crowd in the history of Busch Stadium fighting back the tears, not to mention the overpowering urge to phone their cardiologists.
With the giant scoreboard in right field flipping the score one last time, to Cardinals 10, Rangers 9 in 11 innings of unforgettable madness.
But this was merely the final freeze frame in what we could easily argue was the greatest World Series game ever played. Describing this one last picturesque swing of the bat, painting a picture of this euphoric scene, was the easy part. These were the everlasting images in this vivid October picture book that, in David Freese's own words, "become memories."
What, though, will these St. Louis Cardinals tell their children and their grandchildren about the long and winding 4-hour, 33-minute road that led them to this incredible finale? What will they tell the next generations about the greatest World Series game ever played?
Well, here's where they ought to start:
• They should say they were a part of the first World Series game in history in which a team got down to its final strike, its final breath, twice -- once in the ninth inning, once in the 10th inning -- and somehow won.
• They should say they were a part of the first World Series game ever played in which any team trailed five times -- and still came back to win.
• They should say they were a part of the first World Series game ever in which a team found itself losing in the ninth inning and extra innings -- yet still found a way to win.
• They should say they played in the first World Series game in history in which two players -- Josh Hamilton for the Rangers, then Freese for the Cardinals -- hit go-ahead home runs in extra innings.
• They should say they were the first team in the 1,330-game history of postseason baseball to score in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings of any game.
• But mostly, they should say this: That they played in a baseball game that reminded all of them why they play, why we watch and why sports can be such a powerful force in all of our lives -- because the term "baseball game" doesn't begin to do justice to this remarkable life experience.
"The greatest game I've ever played in," said the right fielder, Lance Berkman.
Really and truly, this was an ugly game for about six or seven innings. But then it got beautiful, right at the end.
”-- Cardinals RF Lance Berkman
"In the 31 years I've been alive and the 11 years I've been in the big leagues, this was pretty special, man," said The Franchise, Albert Pujols. "This is what baseball is all about."
"I don't know how to describe this game," said the center fielder, Skip Schumaker. "I almost want to tell people, 'You have to see the video.' It's one of those games you have to watch. It's one of those instant classics on ESPN, just because of the magnitude of the game. ... I'm only 30 years old. But I know it's the best World Series game I've ever seen."
Well, it may not matter how long you've been alive. It may not matter how many October baseball games you've watched in your lifetime. You would have a very, very, very difficult time making a case that any of them were better than this one -- because an extra-inning walk-off home run was almost a secondary plot line, to the sight of a team coming back from the dead. Twice.
"It's just an exhilarating feeling," said Berkman, whose game-tying 10th-inning hit was part two of the late-inning CPR, "when you're like Lazarus and you come back from the dead."
That's not to say this game was some kind of work of art or anything. It would be tough to ignore the five errors, the unearned runs that scored in three different innings, the baserunning mistakes and the miscommunications that left potholes all over the highway for the first half of this extravaganza.
Long before Freese turned into Mr. October, for instance, he clanked a routine popup and failed to catch another catchable foul ball while nearly impaling himself on a railing beyond third base.
"I felt like I was part of a circus out there," he would say later, "bouncing balls off the top of my hat a little bit."
But all that goofiness was kind of entertaining in its own right. And fortunately, at least it was confined to only the first act of this show.
"Really and truly, this was an ugly game for about six or seven innings," said the relentlessly honest Berkman. "But then it got beautiful, right at the end."
No kidding. And by our calculations, it was about the seventh inning when the Louvre acquisitions committee should have lurched to attention. One second, this was a 4-4 game. The next, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz were launching back-to-back homers to springboard the Rangers back into the lead. And here's all you need to know about how rare that was:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, had the Rangers won, it would have been the first time a team hit back-to-back home runs in taking the lead that late in a clinching game since two nobodies named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit a game-tying bomb and a go-ahead shot back-to-back in the final game of the 1928 World Series. Pretty cool.
And by the time that seventh inning ended, the Rangers led 7-4 with six outs to go and three of their most trusted pitchers -- Derek Holland, Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz -- lined up to nail down those six outs. Now here's how secure a spot THAT was:
According to the invaluable website WhoWins.com, 41 previous home teams had trailed by three runs after seven innings in any best-of-seven postseason series -- and only one of them had ever come back to win. That was the 2008 Red Sox, against Tampa Bay in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. So obviously, no team had ever survived a mess like this and won in a World Series game.
But the 2011 Cardinals are no ordinary team. We don't need to retell the story of their season. But if there ever was a team that wouldn't be inclined to look at a deficit like that and decide it was hopeless, it would be an outfit that trailed by 10½ games in the last week of August, by 8½ with 21 games to go and by three games with five to play.
"We've been playing must-win games since August and September, when we were 10½ back and 8½ back," said reliever Jason Motte. "So we've been there before. These guys just don't give up."
Still, when the bottom of the ninth rolled around, they were still trailing by two runs, 7-5. Then Feliz marched in and blew away Ryan Theriot with a 98 mile-an-hour scorchball. And The End was two outs away.
But then Pujols pounded a double up the gap in left-center and Berkman walked. And the tying run was actually on base. But when Feliz punched out Allen Craig with a vicious 2-and-2 breaking ball, you could feel the energy begin to drain out of a charged up ballpark.
Then Feliz jumped ahead of Freese, 1-and-2. So here was Texas, one strike away.
The Rangers' players climbed to the top step of the dugout. Feliz walked to the back of the mound and stared out to center field, then left field, picturing the pitch that was going to finish off the first championship season in Rangers history.
Freese leaned on his back foot, watching, waiting and thinking, he would say later, "What a great way to have my first career AB off Feliz." But he also reminded himself to keep his swing as short as possible. And when he found another 98 mph fastball headed his way, he "didn't miss that one."
He practically flicked the ball 350 feet toward deep right field. But Cruz appeared to have a line on it. As he drifted back, almost casually, toward the warning track, his teammates were practically into their victory celebration. Then, to their horror, the ball sailed to the left of Cruz's glove and clattered off the wall. Triple. Tie game. Cue the first wave of pandemonium.
It was just the third game-tying RBI hit in World Series history by any player whose team was one out from elimination. (The other two came from Otis Nixon in 1992 and Josh Devore in 1911.) But Freese was an excellent candidate to add his name to that, or any, list of October clutchiness. He is now hitting 8-for-18 in this postseason with runners in scoring position, with three doubles, two homers, that heart-thumping triple and 15 RBIs.
"He's just got it," said Berkman. "I don't know exactly what 'it' is. But he's got it. He's one of those players who can perform when it matters most. He may not always come through, but the moment is never bigger than he is."
The stadium must have rattled continuously for the next five minutes after this stunning turn of events. But the elation didn't last long, because three hitters into the top of the 10th inning, Josh Hamilton pounded a towering two-run homer off Motte that seemed, once and for all, to settle this deal.
What the heck. How many times could one team come back anyway? When a team has already made four leads disappear, performed an act of reincarnation when it was one strike away from elimination and STILL finds itself two down in the 10th inning, that's not what you'd call a real good formula for how to win the World Series.
So out in right field, Berkman admitted he thought, just for a moment, about what an amazing story it would be for Hamilton, a man with a positively cinematic life story, to be the hero of this World Series. But his very next thought, he said, was: "Let's fight back and see what happens."
And whaddaya know, this game would come down to him.
There were two outs in the 10th. It was a 9-8 game. The tying run was on third, thanks to a not-exactly-textbook bunt by -- don't even ask us how it came to this -- a pitcher (Kyle Lohse) who was hitting for another pitcher (Edwin Jackson) who was announced as the pinch-hitter for a third pitcher (Motte). And Pujols had just been intentionally walked by the Rangers for the fifth time in three games.
But Berkman said he felt "really calm, really at peace as I was walking up to the plate" to face Scott Feldman, a guy he'd faced enough to go 4-for-10 against, with a .500 on-base percentage.
"I actually felt pretty good about it," Berkman said, "because I figured I was in a no-lose situation."
And why was it a no-lose situation? Because nobody could possibly have expected THIS, right? Not after all this team had been through over the last eight weeks. Not after already surviving one near-death experience just moments before.
So once again, the count went to 1-and-2, and then 2-and-2. Feldman stood on the rubber and tried to blow warmth into his fingertips. Berkman wagged his bat, as those rally towels spun and the P.A. system pounded.
Feldman rocked, fired and tried to jam Berkman with a cutter that had just enough movement to break Berkman's bat. But somehow, he was able to stroke it into center, in front of Hamilton. And once again, this was a tie game -- at (gulp) 9-9.
Asked later if this was a moment he'd dreamed of as a kid, Berkman quipped: "When you're a little kid and you're out there, you don't have a bunch of reporters and fans that are ready to call you a choking dog if you don't come through. So when you're a kid you don't realize what a big moment that is. I'm just going to caution all little kids out there: Be careful what you wish for."
That's excellent advice, kiddies. But the truth is, what you're wishing for is this:
You're wishing for the chance to be David Freese, standing there at home plate in the 11th inning -- bat wagging, crowd erupting -- as the seventh Texas reliever of the night, Mark Lowe, stared him in the eyeballs.
And then here came the 3-2 changeup -- the 383rd pitch of this astounding game -- that was going to rewrite the script of his entire life.
David Freese's bat flashed through the electrified Missouri night. And then
There went the baseball, soaring through the October sky.
And back went Josh Hamilton back back until there was no place left to run.
And the incomprehensible had happened. In real life.
The St. Louis Cardinals were alive -- and heading for the first World Series Game 7 since 2002. Alive. Somehow.
They knew they'd just been a part of something unique and everlasting. But for those 4½ grueling hours they were out there living it, they hadn't had a second -- not one -- to savor it. How could they?
Asked if he'd taken a step back at any point to appreciate what they'd all been a part of, Berkman laughed and said: "Heck, when you're down to your last strike, no one ever thinks, 'Boy, this is GREAT.'"
But in retrospect? Boy, this was great. And the best part for these men was that it has a chance to be something greater.
To find the last team that was in the Cardinals' position -- a team that had just won Game 6 at home and then LOST Game 7 at home -- you have to travel all the way back to 1975, to the Red Sox, who lost Game 7 at Fenway against the Big Red Machine.
Since then, seven teams have gone home, down 3 games to 2, and won Game 6. And all seven of them won Game 7 as well.
So history says that, for the Cardinals, this just set them up to do something greater. The only trouble is, now they have to go out and actually do it.
"The reality," Berkman said, "is that, if we don't win tomorrow, this game becomes just a footnote to a nice season.
"But if we win tomorrow, this is the stuff of legends."
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