|Yadier Molina and the Cardinals dugout celebrates after taking the lead in the ninth inning. (Getty Images)|
WASHINGTON -- The world champion St. Louis Cardinals, a team that scoffs at so-so regular seasons and large in-game deficits, pulled off their latest miracle late Friday night and early Saturday morning to shock the Nationals to make it back to the NLCS.
Six runs down? No problem. Down to their last strike? No sweat.
The Cardinals' latest comeback may be their best to date. A wild St. Louis celebration followed its hard-to-believe 9-7 victory that sent the Cinderallas to the sidelines.
"The Cardiac kids ... you can't beat 'em," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt said in the winning clubhouse. "When things are tough, you see great things. These guys never gave up. It's unbelievable. You can't count them out."
Folks knew about the Cardinals' resilience even before this beauty, but their comeback from an early 6-0 deficit could be the topper for a franchise that never quits, and usually wins. They've won more championships than anyone but the Goliaths from Gotham, and no one would be surprised to see them do it again.
|More on Cardinals-Nationals|
|Who wins World Series?|
The Cardinals are now a remarkable 6-0 in elimination games since the start of the 2011 postseason, when they staged a late rally just to reach the postseason. This group threatens to add even more glory to the storied franchise.
Everyone heard about how the Nationals, who had a wonderful storybook regular season to reach the playoffs for the first time, were without Stephen Strasburg this postseason. But the Cardinals are without Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal, and oh yeah, another fellow by the name of Albert Pujols, who left the Cardinals for the Angels' riches and may be watching this from his home in St. Louis, which continues to add to its claim as America's best baseball town.
The Cardinals endured a regular season where their ace pitcher Chris Carpenter made only a couple of late cameos, and another young starter, Jaime Garcia, was hampered by injuries. They wound up winning only 88 games and sneaking into the second and final wild-card spot. But they always seem poised to pull a surprise. This could be two surprises in two years.
"Once you win a ring, you want to win another one," David Freese said.
The Nats and their fans, who enjoyed a wonderful ride throughout the year, had to be a bit shocked at this one, though. Even after the Cardinals pecked away at the big 6-0 early deficit, the Nationals seemed positioned to win the first playoff series in this town in 79 years, especially after closer Drew Storen retired two of the first three Cardinals he faced to start the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead.
But then disaster struck. Or the Cardinals did, depending on one's perspective.
MVP candidate Yadier Molina and 2011 World Series MVP Freese both walked (Freese nearly struck out on a borderline 2-2 pitch), setting things up for a bottom of the order that carries peskiness and productiveness to a new level. Daniel Descalso, a .227 hitter for the year, grounded a sharp single that ticked off Nats shortstop Ian Desmond's glove to tie the score at 7.
Freese, 2011's hero, said afterward, "The best part is you play in the postseason, you don't know who's going to step up."
True, all you know is he's very likely going to be wearing a Cardinals uniform. After Descalso, up stepped another unlikely hero.
It was none other than Pete Kozma, the replacement for the injured Furcal, the guy who gathered big hit after big hit when no one expected it, the guy who helped the Cardinals reach the postseason, the guy who assisted in making the infield fly rule famous in the wild-card play-in game.
This time, there was no doubt, and no controversy. The little Kozma followed Descalso's hit with a sharp single to right field off Storen that made it 9-7. The crowd, rocking all night, fell quiet for just a bit before starting up again with a "Let's go Nats" chant.
They had waited 79 years here for something to cheer about in October, so the fans never gave up. But the Nats were through.
Their brilliant regular season, with 98 wins, most in baseball (and 10 more than the wild-card Cardinals), meant nothing now. There might be some second guessing about the decision to shut down Strasburg, but Strasburg, like some other Nats starters, seemed to be running out of gas anyway by the end. Gio Gonzalez, the active ace, lost half the 6-0 lead by the time he left after six innings of struggle.
The young Nats have the talent to make it back, and they should. But this one hurt.
"You know," said manager Davey Johnson, who won a World Series with the Mets after they were down to their last strike in Game 6, "I've been on the other end of the stick where just one out, and you move on. We just couldn't get it. We had the right people there. We just got a little too cautious."
Some might say it had a little something to do with their opponent, too. Freese, the best hitter last October, worked the key walk to load the bases and set the stage for the pair of two-run hits by the St. Louis scrappers on the bottom of an otherwise imposing lineup.
Actually, Freese was nearly struck out on a 2-2 pitch where he (barely) checked his swing on a pitch that was called low by home plate umpire Alfonzo Marquez. It was very borderline, and was actually seen as a strike on the bottom of the strike zone, according to the pitch tracker on TBS.
"It was down," Freese said with a smile, without saying whether it was down below the strike zone. He also came close to swinging. But as far as whether he checked the swing, he said, "I think I did."
With the Cardinals, though, as first-year manager Mike Matheny said, "It's not that they think they can. It's not that they believe they can. They know they can."
Even after falling behind 6-0 on a barrage of early extra-base hits against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, they believed they could. Things did look a bit bleak after the Nats started the evening with a Jayson Werth double, a Bryce Harper triple and Ryan Zimmerman home run to make it 3-0, then soon after made it 6-0 in the third, thanks to a Harper homer, Zimmerman double and a Michael Morse homer.
When Wainwright was pulled, he told the troops, "Take care of me."
And so they did. Carlos Beltran, ostensibly the Pujols replacement, was on base all five times he batted, including the double to start the winning rally. But the tying and winning hits came from much lesser names. With the Cardinals, it doesn't matter who it is, as long as he has on the uniform.
"I had a terrible performance, and the team picked me up," Wainwright aid. "There's a lot of heart in here. We keep doing it, time and time again."