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Final look at best division series round ever

Major League Baseball has rarely looked better than it did last week.

The 2012 postseason promises additional dramatic moments, as both league championship series continue this week, heading into the World Series.

Still, it's going to be tough for baseball to outdo what was almost unquestionably the most compelling division series round in the sport's history. All four best-of-five division series went the distance and each provided quite a few highlights that will never be forgotten.

Let's take a final look at some of the things we learned from the epic week:

THE CARDINALS ALMOST ALWAYS DELIVER IN THE CLUTCH

Had baseball not added a second wild-card berth in each league this season, St. Louis would not have qualified for the postseason. When the Cardinals and starting pitcher Adam Wainwright found themselves trailing 6-0 in the third inning of Friday night's Game 5 against the Washington Nationals, it surely appeared the defending world champs were going to be eliminated from the postseason.

History shows, however, the Cardinals should never be dismissed so easily. Seemingly down and out when Wainwright was pulled with one out in the third inning, the Cardinals got a shot in the arm from their bullpen, which allowed just one run over the last 6 2/3 innings and enabled St. Louis to crawl back into the game.

The Cardinals were still trailing by two runs and down to their last strike against Washington closer Drew Storen when Daniel Descalso delivered the game- tying hit. Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma then hit a two-run single to complete a four-run, ninth-inning rally in what became a 9-7 win over the Nationals.

The rally from a six-run deficit was the largest ever in a winner-take-all baseball playoff game, but finding a way to come through in a must-win situation has become old hat for St. Louis. Friday's epic comeback delivered the Cardinals' sixth consecutive win in a series elimination game, dating to 2004.

Some of the names have changed - there's no Albert Pujols in St. Louis anymore - but this organization just knows how to rise to the occasion in the clutch. Friday's comeback to top all comebacks will undoubtedly give St. Louis tremendous confidence that it will always be able to overcome adversity.

Don't underestimate the importance of that fact as the stakes get higher.

HOW MUCH DID THE NATIONALS' AND REDS' ABSENCE OF ACES HURT?

When Johnny Cueto departed with an oblique strain after throwing just eight pitches in Game 1 of the NLDS against San Francisco, it left Cincinnati without its NL Cy Young candidate for the rest of the best-of-five series. The Reds' bullpen came through with 8 2/3 solid innings to win that series opener, but the absence of Cueto for the remainder of the series prevented him from pitching in either Game 4 or 5. Had Cueto not gotten hurt, Mike Leake would not have started Game 4 (or any other game in the series, for that matter).

Leake was touched up for five earned runs in 4 1/3 innings, and the Reds were eventually buried in Game 4 even though his mound opponent, Barry Zito, was also shaky for the Giants.

It's hard to say whether a healthy Cueto would have meant the difference between winning and losing the series, but it certainly would have given the Reds a better chance. Had he been able to pitch deep into Game 1 and gotten the win, it would have allowed the Reds to start a well-rested Mat Latos in Game 3 with a chance to go for the sweep.

The bigger controversy involving a pitching ace in these playoffs was Washington's decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wanted to limit Strasburg's innings because this was his first full year back from Tommy John surgery.

We'll never know whether the Nationals would have won this series (or, potentially, a world championship) had they opted to keep Strasburg active through the postseason. Having him as part of a 1-2 punch with Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez would have been intriguing, though.

Jordan Zimmermann is a fine, young pitcher who finished the regular season with a strong 2.94 ERA. However, he gave up five runs in a three-inning start in Game 2 against the Cardinals, effectively taking the Nationals out of that game.

An unnamed Nationals player reportedly grumbled after that game that Washington would have been up 2-0 in the series had Strasburg pitched one of the games. That kind of thinking in the Nationals' clubhouse was bound to happen.

This will all turn out OK if the Nationals get to the playoffs each of the next five years or so and win a world championship or two. The problem is, there are no guarantees in this game.

As good as the Nationals are (they led the majors with 98 wins in 2012), and as bright as their future is, it's not a slam dunk that they'll have a better chance to win a title during the next several years. If they don't win one, their players and front office will long lament about what might have been.

A-ROD TAKES A SEAT ON YANKEES' BENCH

It took guts for Yankees manager Joe GIrardi to pinch-hit for arguably the greatest player of his generation, Alex Rodriguez, when New York was down to its final two outs and staring at the possibility of a 2-1 deficit in the best- of-five series against Baltimore. Raul Ibanez stepped up to the plate in A- Rod's place and belted the game-tying home run.

Ibanez later hit a walk-off homer in the 12th inning to give the Yankees the series lead.

In the Game 4 loss to Baltimore, Rodriguez was once again lifted for a pinch- hitter. Then, Rodriguez didn't start or even appear in Game 5, which the Yankees won, 3-1.

The biggest question going forward is how this will affect A-Rod's relationship with Girardi. It matters, too, because Rodriguez is under contract for five more years at a total of $114 million.

A-Rod, to his credit, has said all the right things. However, he did not speak to the media following the Game 5 benching. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next week or two.

BIGGER (PAYROLL) IS STILL BETTER

The two potential Cinderella stories this postseason were those of the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics. Surprise participants in their respective AL Division Series, each got to Game 5 before losing to a high- priced ace.

So much of this game is about pitching. How would you expect a matchup between 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander ($20 million in 2012) and Oakland's Jarrod Parker ($480,000) to turn out? What about a battle between Yankees ace CC Sabathia ($23 million) and Jason Hammel ($4.75 million)?

In each case, predictably, the high-priced ace came through with the series- clinching win. Verlander and Sabathia both pitched complete-game victories to get their teams to the AL Championship Series.

It's not that Parker and Hammel pitched ineffectively; they were both respectable in their Game 5s. It's just that when a series is on the line, it's usually safer to put your money on the elite ace. And since those guys usually cost a pretty penny, it's hard for smaller-market teams to employ them.

THE GIANTS' REBOUND, THOUGH OVERSHADOWED, WAS REMARKABLE

When St. Louis erased a six-run deficit to win Game 5 and the series against Washington, it probably diminished in some fans' minds what San Francisco achieved in its series against Cincinnati.

Think about it: The Reds went into San Francisco and won the first two games of the series, including a 9-0 thrashing in Game 2. They came back home needing to win just one of three home games to close out the series.

Cincinnati scored a first-inning run in Game 3, and it was getting easy to envision a three-game sweep. San Francisco turned the tables on the Reds, however, battling back to win Game 3 in 10 innings. The Giants offense, largely dormant through three games, suddenly came alive. San Francisco scored eight runs in Game 4 and six in Game 5 to take the series.

The Giants became only the second team to rebound from two home losses to win a best-of-five series, joining the 2001 Yankees, who rallied to beat the Oakland Athletics. The Giants, however, did something even that Yankees team did not: It won three consecutive road games after dropping the first two at home.

Importantly, the Giants also may have taken steps toward getting Tim Lincecum back on track. Left out of San Francisco's starting rotation for the NLDS, the former ace and major 2012 disappointment pitched quite effectively in two relief appearances against the Reds, picking up the Game 4 win. If he gets back into top form, watch out. Don't forget, this team won it all just two seasons ago.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.