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After heartbreaker, Washington tells Rangers to turn page

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ST. LOUIS -- They should have been celebrating.

Instead, they were listening.

They should have been partying. Instead, they were meeting.

The Rangers should have been staring into cameras, spraying champagne, talking about the first World Series title in franchise history. Instead, Ron Washington was reminding them that they still could be.

You think it's easy to turn the page, when you just became the first baseball team ever to twice get within one strike of a title and not win?

Incredibly hard, I'd say.

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A lot tougher than learning to play first base, I'd say.

Ron Washington (the real one, not the movie one) just made it sound simple. The Rangers manager said it to his team, in his first meeting in four months.

He said it again in his office, a few minutes later.

"The World Series is seven games," Washington said. "We've got to play seven games."

It's that simple.

"I just wanted them to understand what's at stake," he said. "And what's still at stake."

Managing a major-league team is about more than pinch hitters and pitching changes. It's about moments like this.

It's about feeling the hurt that the Rangers must feel, but leaving it behind before Game 7 begins.

It's about being the 1975 Reds, who lost Carlton Fisk's Game 6 to the Red Sox, then came back and won Game 7 the very next day. It's about not being the 1986 Red Sox, who lost Bill Buckner's Game 6 to the Mets, then lost again in a Game 7 that was delayed a day by rain.

Moments after David Freese's home run gave the Cardinals a 10-9 victory Thursday night, Washington walked into a clubhouse that was understandably down. He knew it was his job to pick them up.

Unlike some managers (Jim Leyland, for one), he doesn't believe in pregame meetings, even during the postseason. He said he won't have one Friday night.

But he knew he had to change the focus right away, after what happened Thursday.

We won't know until Friday night how successful he was, but I will say that the Rangers didn't look or sound nearly as devastated as you would expect.

"Mentally, I'm already ready for tomorrow," said Josh Hamilton, whose 10th-inning home run could have been a World Series winner. "Don't we have to play tomorrow?"

Hamilton told stories about how the Lord told him he was going to hit a home run. He talked about standing in the outfield during pitching changes, talking about what a great game they were playing in.

"We were like, 'This is a classic,' " Hamilton said. "We're not as stressed out as you all think we are. I want to watch that again."

He's only one player. Maybe the rest of them don't feel that way.

Maybe Game 7 starter Matt Harrison will pitch as poorly as he did in Game 3. Maybe the injuries to Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli will keep both out of the Game 7 lineup, even though both said they hope to play.

And maybe the Rangers won't ever have anything close to as good a chance to win this World Series as they did Thursday night.

Remember, they led 7-4 with five outs to go. They led 7-5 with one out to go, with two strikes on Freese in the ninth, before his triple tied the game.

They led 9-7 after Hamilton's home run, and 9-8 with two outs and two strikes on Lance Berkman, before Berkman's single tied it again.

"It's something you dream about, one strike away," said Scott Feldman, who threw the pitch to Berkman. "But I made a pitch that wasn't exactly where I wanted it."

Should Cruz have been playing deeper in right field on Freese in the ninth? Should he have gotten a better break back, and been able to get back and catch the ball, anyway?

Should Washington have pinch hit for starter Colby Lewis in the fifth, when the Rangers had the bases loaded with two outs in a game they led 4-3? Should he have allowed Feldman to bat in the top of the 11th, rather than go to a pinch hitter and then bring in Mark Lowe, whose sixth pitch turned into Freese's game-winner?

If the Rangers were asking those questions, it was only for a moment. Maybe it helped that they felt like they had played in perhaps the greatest game ever.

"Yeah, it was [heart-breaking]," Washington said. "But I understand how the game goes. It's never over until the final out."

How tough, he was asked then, was it to come back after the Rangers kept going ahead, and the Cardinals kept coming back?

"Every time it happened, my fighting shoes were on," Washington said.

And yes, he said, his "fighting shoes" will be back on Friday.

It's his job to make sure his team reacts the same way. It's his ability as a manager that makes me think they will.

"We're going to find out," Washington said. "We've been in dire position before."

But not like this. No team in baseball history has been in a position like this.

"It's not easy to win a World Series," Washington said. "We found that out. But it's not like we weren't capable of winning it.

"We just didn't tonight."

And now they get another chance.

Another chance at celebrating. Another chance at partying.

This World Series is seven games. And they get to play seven games.

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