WASHINGTON – In the end, it made sense that Yadier Molina and David Freese would work those key walks, and that Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma would come through with those tying and go-ahead, two-run hits.
The names might change. Not the outcomes. This is what the St. Louis Cardinals do.
Pushed to the brink, they never blink.
Trailing by three runs before they recorded an out Friday night, then six before the third inning was over, and still behind when down to their last strike over and over again with two outs in the ninth inning, the defending World Series champions fashioned the sort of comeback they've made their specialty.
Waiting until after midnight to finally take the lead, the never-give-up Cardinals erased the biggest deficit ever overcome in a winner-take-all postseason contest and beat the Washington Nationals 9-7 in Game 5 of the NL division series.
"How did that happen?!" Carlos Beltran asked, speaking to no one in particular in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park.
Not long before that, a blue bin stuffed with ice and beer cans had been hurriedly wheeled from the Nationals' side of the stadium to the Cardinals' room. Yes, the Cardinals turn losses into wins — and then they steal the other guys' bubbly, too.
"We never quit," Molina said. "That's our rule."
According to STATS LLC, no other club in this sort of ultimate pressure situation had come back from more than four runs down. But being behind 3-0, 6-0, 7-5 — none of that fazes these Cardinals. Over the past two years, they have won six postseason games in a row in which a defeat would have ended their season.
"We knew we had a lot of game left after they scored six. Nobody went up there trying to hit a six-run homer," said No. 7 hitter Descalso, whose solo shot in the eighth made it 6-5. "We needed to scratch and claw and get ourselves back in the game."
That run of recent must-have victories for St. Louis includes the wild-card playoff game at Atlanta last weekend, and Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas. Last year, too, St. Louis was a strike away from being done.
"It's just the kind of people they are. They believe in themselves. They believe in each other," first-year manager Mike Matheny said. "It's been this style of team all season long. They just don't quit, and I think that just says a lot about their character."
His wild-card Cardinals, who only secured a playoff spot on the next-to-last day of the regular season, will open the NL championship series against the Giants in San Francisco on Sunday. Lance Lynn, used in relief against Washington, will go back to the rotation and start Game 1.
Madison Bumgarner will pitch Sunday for the Giants, who dropped the first two games of their NLDS against Cincinnati before taking Game 5 on Thursday.
The Nationals led the majors with 98 regular-season wins, and made it an even 100 in the NLDS, but their run ended without All-Star ace Stephen Strasburg. The team said he'd thrown enough in his first full season after Tommy John surgery and didn't put him on the playoff roster.
"I stand by my decision, and we'll take the criticism as it comes," general manager Mike Rizzo said, "but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did."
Even without Strasburg, Washington had its chances to knock off the Cardinals. Oh, were there chances. For a total of five pitches, closer Drew Storen was one strike away from ending the game. But on all five, the batters — first Molina, then 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP Freese — took a pitch that was called a ball.
Both walked, setting the stage for Descalso and Kozma.
"We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing I'll say is that I just let these guys down," Storen said in a quiet Nationals clubhouse, where plastic sheets meant to protect belongings from spraying champagne were rolled up above players' lockers, unneeded. "There's a bad taste in my mouth and that's going to stay there for a couple of months. It's probably never going to leave."
That's thanks to the resilience of the Cardinals, who came through the way they tend to, if only barely: Descalso, who hit .227 in the regular season, came up with a game-saving single that ticked off the glove of diving shortstop Ian Desmond to make it 7-all.
Then it was No. 8 hitter Kozma's turn. He hit .236 in nearly 2,500 at-bats over six seasons in the minors — the unheralded guy was mistakenly called "Cosmos" by Nationals manager Davey Johnson before Game 4 — and was in the Cardinals' lineup only because of an injury to Rafael Furcal. But he sent another pitch from Storen into right field.
"I was looking for a good fastball to hit. He gave it to me," Kozma said. "You can't write this stuff up. It just happens."
Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who got the win with two innings of one-run relief, said: "Maybe we're just stubborn. These guys, they don't give away at-bats, that's the thing."
When Motte got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out, the Cardinals streamed from the visiting dugout for hugs and high-fives. This, though, was nothing new to them.
Down to their last strike in the Fall Classic a year ago, trailing by the exact same 7-5 score in the ninth inning, the Cardinals rallied in Game 6 and then took the championship in what turned out to be the final year with the club for slugging first baseman Albert Pujols and then-manager Tony La Russa. Now Matheny has them four wins away from another World Series appearance.
And to think: Washington, which won the NL East, got off to as good a start as possible Friday.
Seven pitches, three runs. Just like that, Jayson Werth's double, Bryce Harper's triple and Zimmerman's homer got the hosts jump-started. A big third inning highlighted by the 19-year-old Harper's homer made it 6-0.
The Cardinals were not about to go gently into the night. They chipped away. One run off 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez in the fourth, a pair in the fifth, another in the seventh off Edwin Jackson.
Suddenly, it was 6-4. Then came Descalso's homer off Tyler Clippard in the eighth. After Kurt Suzuki drove in a run for Washington to get the lead back up to 7-5, the four-run ninth against Storen — who had elbow surgery in April, returned to the team in July and reclaimed his closer role with a near-perfect September — completed the reversal.
"We've had a great year overcoming a lot of hardship," Johnson said, "and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
In Game 6 of last year's World Series, the Cardinals twice were one strike from losing, before Freese's two-run triple in the ninth, then Lance Berkman's tying RBI single in the 10th. Freese's homer won it in the 11th, the Rangers never got to pop their champagne corks, and St. Louis went on to a 6-2 victory in Game 7.
Here they were, doing it again. The alcoholic beverages waiting for the Nationals got moved down the hallway to the Cardinals' side.
All while a Nationals Park-record crowd of 45,966 witnessed the first postseason series in the nation's capital in 79 years. So seemingly close to a significant triumph, the Nationals — and their fans — left disappointed. Not long after the final out, a few dozen Cardinals fans gathered in the rows right behind the visiting dugout to chant, "Let's go, Cards! Let's go, Cards!"
Hours earlier, the red-dressed D.C. spectators began the night with chants of "Let's go, Nats!" right after the national anthem, then filled the raw October air with roars as run after run scored for the home team. At the outset, highlights of leadoff hitter Werth's epic, 13-pitch at-bat from about 25½ hours before were shown on the video board as he began the bottom of the first. On Thursday night, he ended Game 4 with a homer in the bottom of the ninth that gave Washington a 2-1 victory.
Picking up right where he left off, Werth doubled to the left-field corner off Adam Wainwright, and Harper followed with an RBI triple off the wall in left-center. Harper won't turn 20 until Tuesday; no other teen had a postseason three-bagger, according to STATS. Zimmerman completed the crescendo with his two-run homer.
In 11 previous postseason appearances — mainly as a reliever — Wainwright never had allowed more than one run, much less three in a single inning. Got worse in the third, and his evening was over after 2 1-3 innings.
His season, however, will continue. He plays for the can't-quit Cardinals, after all.
"It was the lowest I ever felt in my career and then all of a sudden it's one of the highest moments in my career," Wainwright said. "That's the great thing about playing on an amazing team. You have someone go out and have a terrible performance like I did, and the rest of the team went out there and fought hard and didn't give up."
NOTES: St. Louis is in the NLCS for the seventh time since the start of the 2000 season. ... The 9-7 final score might be familiar to longtime Washington baseball historians. In the last all-or-nothing game for a Washington baseball team, the Senators lost Game 7 of the 1925 World Series at Pittsburgh by the exact same score when Walter Johnson couldn't hold a 6-3 lead.
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