After one of the more improbable comebacks in postseason history, the St. Louis Cardinals will kick off the National League Championship Series on Sunday against the San Francisco Giants in a matchup of the last two World Series winners.
The Cardinals overcame an early six-run deficit and were behind by two entering the ninth on Friday, but scored four times in their final at bat to shock the Washington Nationals, 9-7, in Game 5 of the NLDS.
"They just don't quit. I think that just says a lot about their character," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of his club. "They realized that no matter what is being said out there, no matter how many people count them out, they control their destiny."
Of course, coming back is nothing new to this Cardinals team, which last season trailed in the wild card standings by 9 1/2 games only to roar back and clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, parlaying that into their 11th World Series title.
And just like last year in Game 6 against the Texas Rangers, the Cardinals on Friday were down to their final strike.
"That's an awesome feeling to share that moment with these guys after coming back from a 6-0 deficit like that," said Daniel Descalso, who homered and scored three times. "It was just awesome."
Carlos Beltran had three hits and was on base five times in the crucial win for the Cardinals, who have now won six consecutive postseason elimination games and will be playing in their seventh NLCS since 2000.
Beltran, who owns an all-time best .817 career postseason slugging percentage, hit .409 against the Nationals with two home runs and four RBI. He also joined Babe Ruth as the only players to reach base five times in an elimination game.
"Tonight, I was thinking about the way the Cardinals came back last year," Beltran said, "and here I am, and we're doing it again. This is a great feeling, being on this team. This is why I came here -- to win."
It was a year of adjustments for the Cardinals, who went into this season with a new manager in Matheny following the retirement of Tony La Russa, and without three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, who bolted to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent.
St. Louis did not skip a beat, though, winning just two games less than last season, and finished 88-74. Although, it wasn't quite the furious finish they needed a year ago, the Cardinals still won 12 of their final 16 games, then topped Atlanta in the first-ever one-game wild card contest.
Beltran was brought into replace Pujols and actually put up about the same numbers, as he hit .269 with 32 home runs and 97 RBI. But, catcher Yadier Molina really shined and should finish among the leaders in MVP voting.
Already an all-world defender, Molina excelled at the plate, batting .315 with 22 home runs and 76 RBI. However, he only had two hits in the series with the Nationals.
"We lose Albert, Lance is out the whole year, but we still know how to win," Molina said. "That tells you how good we are. We've got some great players here, guys who won't quit."
St. Louis is loaded with experience in their rotation, but it will be 25-year- old righty Lance Lynn getting the call in Game 1. Lynn was 18-7 this past season with a 3.78 ERA, but saw his ERA jump a full run in the second half of the season. He's also lost both of his starts to the Giants, surrendering nine runs in 11 1/3 innings of those outings.
After that the Cards will rely on former Cy Young Award winner and postseason warrior Chris Carpenter, who is 10-2 lifetime in the playoffs, and Kyle Lohse, who had his best season as a pro, going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA.
Former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright will get the Game 4 assignment.
Unlike last year's bullpen situation under La Russa, the roles are a little more defined. One role that is the same, though, is the closer Motte, who may not look as impressive as some of the other top-notch closers in the league, but is just as reliable picked up every save for the Cardinals this season.
Right-hander Mitchell Boggs is his main setup man. Righty Edward Mujica, who posted a 1.03 ERA since coming from Florida, and lefty Marc Rzepczynski also serve as the bridge.
Like the Cardinals, San Francisco needed all five games of its Division Series matchup to get past the Cincinnati Reds, as Buster Posey's grand slam punctuated a six-run fifth inning that helped the Giants cap an amazing comeback with a 6-4 win.
"I didn't do much the whole series," said Posey. "I probably was a little overanxious at times. I was happy to be in that situation."
San Francisco had dropped the first two games of the set with the Reds, but reeled off three straight wins to earn their second trip to the NLCS in three years.
Brandon Crawford picked up two hits, an RBI and a run scored in the decisive win for the Giants, who became the first NL team to rally back from an 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-five series since the format was changed back in 1995. They also became the only team in either league to do so with three consecutive road victories.
What made the Giants' first round win even more amazing was the fact that Cincinnati outscored them 22-18, outhit them .261-.194 and recorded a 3.13 ERA, compared with San Francisco's 4.11.
San Francisco's bullpen was terrific, as no starter was able to pitch beyond the sixth inning.
"Affeldt, Romo, [George] Kontos, all of them did a great job the whole series," manager Bruce Bochy said.
One of those relievers Bochy failed to mention was two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who was remarkable in two outings. After an awful season that saw him go 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA, Lincecum was demoted to the pen, but the Freak answered the call, going 1-0, while allowing just one run in with eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 frames.
Lincecum could wiggle his way into a start in this series, as Barry Zito struggled in his outing.
"I think you have to," Bochy said of Lincecum. "He stepped up and did a terrific job. ... When you're on a stage like this, you're hoping somebody steps up, and Timmy has that ability and he did tonight for us. ... So I think, yeah, we get to that point, sure, we'll talk about it."
Getting the ball in Game 1, though, will be 23-year-old right-hander Madison Bumgarner, who was 16-11 this season, but 10 of those wins came at home. However, he was rocked by Cincinnati in San Francisco in Game 1 of the NLDS to tune of four runs in only 4 1/3 innings.
Bumgarner also gave up seven runs over 13 1/3 innings in his two matchups with the Redbirds.
With ace Matt Cain going for the Giants in Game 3, lefty Ryan Vogelsong will get the Game 2 assignment. Game 4 is still not decided, but Bochy seems to be leaning in Lincecum's direction.
The Giants offense is paced by NL MVP candidate Posey, who hit only .211 in the NLDS, but was the NL's leading hitter at .336 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI during the regular season.
Hunter Pence was acquired near the trade deadline to help the Giants' woeful offense, but he has become the team's inspirational leader with fiery clubhouse speeches, as his "look into each other's eyes" has become a rallying cry for the team.
"That day it happened," Pence said of the first scrum, "we were so fired up before [batting practice] that I wanted to make sure we kept that energy when the game started. I was like, after they announce us, I just wanted to get everyone together, and here we go. We're all in."
The Giants' bullpen suffered a big blow when animated closer Brian Wilson was done for the season with a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. In two appearances this season, Wilson had one save and a 9.00 ERA. Santiago Casilla led the club with 25 saves in a bullpen-best 73 games. Sergio Romo had 14 saves in 69 appearances for the Giants, who can use Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt or Clay Hensley to name a few as relievers.
San Francisco has played the Cardinals twice before in the playoffs. St. Louis edged the Giants in a thrilling seven-game series in 1987, but San Francisco got its revenge in 2002 with a five-game win in the LCS.
The previous two World Series winners haven't met in the postseason since the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Braves dueled in the 1958 Fall Classic.
PREDICTION: ST. LOUIS in SIX