WASHINGTON -- No matter how bad today might look to the Cardinals, they always find a way to make it to tomorrow. Their greatest strength is their knack for hanging in and hanging on once they reach the brink, which is by far their favorite spot.
Twice down to their final strike early Saturday morning against Nationals closer Drew Storen, the defending World Series champions scored four times in the top of the ninth and won Game 5 of the Division Series, 9-7. And that was after having spotted the inspired young opponent a 6-0 lead after three innings. It was their seventh consecutive win in a potential elimination game.
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Again, the only thing eliminated was any doubt about their immense clutch ability. Daniel Descalso, the unheralded second baseman whom Nationals manager Davey Johnson said resembled Rod Carew this week, tied it with a two-out, two-run single off the glove of shortstop Ian Desmond. Then Pete Kozma, the rookie shortstop pressed into action because of a late-season injury to Rafael Furcal, hit a two-run single to right. Just like that, a two-run deficit turned into a resounding win.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, speaking of his players, said, "When we were down by six runs, it just seemed to bring out something better in them.''
Instead of going home, the Cards will open the NLCS against the Giants in San Francisco Sunday night. They obviously are comfortable on the edge, and in the postseason. A wild-card team for the second straight year, they seem better in the playoffs than the regular season. "We don't really classify ourselves as one thing or another," Matheny said. "What I would like to say about our team is that we've shown a lot of heart this year. I'd say, also, they don't quit, and it's hard to beat a team that doesn't quit."
To say it was a stunning loss for the Nationals -- who had 98 regular-season wins, the most in the majors -- would be quite an understatement. Johnson, who had spoken the other day of maintaining hope when his Mets trailed the Red Sox by two runs with two outs, two strikes and no one on base in the 10th inning of World Series Game 6 in 1986, experienced the exact other side of it.
Of his players, he said, "I just told them, it was nothing to hang your head about. It was a great year. We overcame a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson . . . Have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther.''
The Cardinals held the Nationals scoreless after ace Adam Wainwright allowed six runs, including homers by Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Michael Morse, in the first three innings. And the hitters just kept chipping away.
Against Nationals 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, they scored twice in the fifth to make it 6-3. Descalso led off the eighth with a home run against Tyler Clippard to make it 6-5 before Kurt Suzuki's two-out RBI single in the bottom of the inning gave the Nationals a two-run lead. Then Carlos Beltran (3-for-3, two doubles, two walks) got the winning rally going with a leadoff double in the ninth. After a pair of two-out walks to Yadier Molina and David Freese, Descalso and Kozma came through.
The Cards delayed opening the champagne until Descalso and Kozma entered the clubhouse after doing interviews. Said Descalso, "It would have been easy for us to roll over and let the crowd take us out of the game, but like we always say, we've got a lot of baseball players in that clubhouse. The bullpen came through the last six innings, guys had good at-bats. And that ninth inning was just incredible.''
It was all a demonstration of the Cardinals' uncanny mix of grit and calm. "We learned last year going down the stretch when we were down 101/2 games with however many we had left, what it's like to play under those kind of pressure situations, and we saw how if you just take it one game at a time . . . ," said pitcher Kyle Lohse, who had pitched the one-game wild-card win over the Braves a week earlier and had a no-decision in a stellar Game 4 outing Thursday.
Said Matheny, "You know, I don't think I've ever been associated with a team that has had more heartbreaking losses than what this club has had this year. One of the things that stands out about this club is its resiliency and persistence in the way they just keep coming back."