WASHINGTON -- About the only predictable thing in this baseball season was that all four Division Series would go the full five games. And it was only fitting that the final one to be decided here, between the Cardinals and Nationals, is a series that could serve as the national capital for surprises.
The Nationals, with their young players, progressed way ahead of schedule and had the best record in the major leagues over 162 games. If that were not illogical enough, they chose to enter the postseason without their No. 1 asset, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, shut down because he is only a year removed from Tommy John surgery.
The Cardinals were just as inexplicable. The defending World Series champions lost Tony La Russa, arguably the greatest manager of this generation, and Albert Pujols, arguably baseball's best hitter in recent years, and still they made the playoffs, won the first-ever wild-card game and dominated two games in this round.
Whether this is a sign of strength or mediocrity for Major League Baseball is open to debate. But it is undeniably exciting, and it gives every team hope.
Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse, who threw seven innings of two-hit ball Thursday and got only a no-decision, said earlier in the week, "You know, the thing that strikes me is there's no clear favorite, I believe. You saw us last year; we got hot at the right time, and I think that's what it takes to win this whole thing. You've got to have guys executing and getting hot at the most crucial times."
The stories of the Cardinals and Nationals this year took their place in context with other unlikely outcomes: the Athletics upsetting the Rangers for the division and taking the Tigers to five games, the Orioles beating the Rangers in the wild-card game and taking the Yankees to five games, and the Giants winning three straight on the road to beat the Reds in the other NLDS.
"I think it says that there's a lot of parity, that a lot of clubs have really done a good job putting their teams together," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said before Game 5 at Nationals Park Friday night, a home game his club earned by winning 98 games in the regular season. "There's a good balance in pitching and hitting in both leagues. You know, I think it's great for baseball, what's going on, especially here and Baltimore."
Around the Nationals, there has been a feeling that this is only the start of something. The club's decision to shut down Strasburg added to the sense that the goal is to win down the road, not in 2012.
"A lot of guys haven't really hit their stride. There's still a bigger ceiling for a number of players on this ballclub," Johnson said.
But the way the club reacted during and after its walk-off 2-1 win in Game 4 Thursday night showed that there is a sense of urgency here and now, too. "Oh yeah, it's fun -- in a grueling, I guess, professional-athlete way. We think things are fun that a lot of people wouldn't think are fun," said Ryan Zimmerman, a mainstay at third base for Washington since his career began in 2005. "This is what we work for. This is what we've played baseball our whole lives for, to be in these situations."
At times in the past week, like last October, it has seemed as if the Cardinals were born for these situations. You could make a case that they are a better postseason team than regular-season team. "We don't really classify ourselves as one thing or another," manager Mike 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."
That is why eight teams reached Game 5 this week.