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Cardinals in 11th heaven after World Series triumph

By Larry Fine

ST LOUIS (Reuters) - Call it a state of 11th heaven for the St. Louis Cardinals after a fairytale finish to one of baseball's great comeback stories, ending with a World Series triumph for the National League's most successful team.

Yet nothing seemed capable of stopping the no-quit Cardinals after their last and greatest escape of a miracle season, the 11-inning, do-or-die Game Six victory that saved them from elimination.

World Series have a way of producing the extraordinary.

There was Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning home run that ended the Minnesota Twins' must-win Game Six in 1991, and Carlton Fisk's arm-waving prayers answered for his Game Six-ending 1975 homer in the 12th inning that kept the Boston Red Sox alive.

For pure theatrics, the St. Louis series show stopper topped them all.

The team that battled to claim a wildcard playoff berth after standing a half-game short of 11 behind Atlanta with a month to go in the season, and won the last two in Philadelphia to overtake the league-best Phillies in the first round, needed last-gasp hits twice to set up their walk-off moment.

After trailing at five different stages of the tension-packed elimination game, the cardiac Cards prevailed after staying alive with two runs in the ninth and two more in the 10th when Series MVP David Freese, a local boy made good, smashed a walk-off homer to dead center in the 11th.

Even MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was enthralled.

"It certainly was one of the most exciting, best games I've ever seen," Selig told reporters before Game Seven. "It was breathtaking. The last three innings were breathtaking."

Game Seven failed to pack the punch of that game for the ages, but that did not dim the euphoria of a sold-out Busch Stadium crowd and thousands more fans who crowded near big screens outside and were let in through the gates in the ninth inning to watch the clinching and celebration on the diamond.

HORNS HONKING

After a night of horns honking, people riding atop cars, and dancing in the street outside former Cardinals player Mike Shanahan's downtown bar/restaurant until the wee hours, the venerable franchise faced critical questions moving forward.

Tony La Russa, 67, who became the ninth manager to win three World Series, has not yet decided about his return for a 17th season in St. Louis, and three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols was set to test the free-agent market.

La Russa, closing in on a move into second place on the all-time wins list for major league managers, is a fair bet to come back after joining Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Connie Mack, Walter Alston, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Miller Huggins and John McGraw as triple World Series winners.

Pujols may be another matter, with the Cards hard-pressed to afford placing him at the top of MLB's wage scale, where the slugging first baseman could expect to be.

That would put Pujols somewhere between $25 and $30 million a year for a long-term agreement, a figure difficult for the smallish market team to handle given this year's team payroll of a shade more than $100 million.

Pujols showed his explosive skills with a Game Three performance unmatched in the World Series for total production.

He tied Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson by blasting three home runs, tied the record for most hits with five, most RBIs with six and set a Fall Classic mark with 14 total bases.

Again, the commissioner weighed in.

"I hope it can be worked out," said Selig. "I hope Albert stays in St. Louis. I really do. That's his judgment to make but I hope that Albert Pujols will stay in St. Louis."

In any event, St. Louis will forever have the memory of a team that refused to be beaten after starting the season without 20-game winner Adam Wainwright, who had elbow surgery.

(Editing by Sonia Oxley)