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Comeback kids: Cardinals, Giants reach NLCS by most confounding routes

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Mitchell Boggs (left) and Jason Motte will face the Giants in a matchup of the past two champions. (AP)  
Mitchell Boggs (left) and Jason Motte will face the Giants in a matchup of the past two champions. (AP)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., still smoldering behind them, the Giants and Cardinals worked out under a gorgeous San Francisco sun Saturday for the NL Championship Series nobody expected.

Last we saw in this town as the Giants headed to Cincinnati, workmen were all but shuttering AT&T Park for the winter.

And the Cardinals. Political ads, taxes and the Cardinals. You can't get rid of 'em.

"On the flight here, we were able to catch a lot of highlights on the [airplane] televisions, and we were able to watch the same things multiple times," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny says of the Cards' stunning 9-7, Game 5 win over the Nationals. "But I'm going to have to watch this game over again. It still really hasn't sunk in, what these guys did.

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"The at-bats these guys had, and the innings the bullpen threw ... they're in a category like I've never seen before, personally."

The Cardinals trailed 6-0 and then were down to their last strike, twice. The champagne was ready in the Nationals' clubhouse. Which is more acute with these Cardinals, their sense of drama or their sense of humor?

The Giants were down two games to none, and Homer Bailey took a no-hitter against them into the sixth inning in Game 3. They managed one hit over nine innings in Game 3 before winning it in the 10th. From there, the Giants became the first team in NL Division Series history to win a best-of-5 after losing the first two games.

"It's almost poetic, playing such a tough opponent in the first round to get ready for these guys," Giants general manager Brian Sabean was saying Saturday. "[The Reds and Cardinals] are similar in what they do offensively.

"If you watched St. Louis' series, you saw a lot of great at-bats. You saw a lot of innings they were able to change because of those at-bats."

Really, this should be the Reds and the Nationals playing in this NLCS, given that each had its Division Series by the throat. In those cities, the scars from this October will remain for a long, long time.

Yet if each of those clubs was going to blow it ... well, it's fitting that it was the Cardinals and the Giants who took it.

What we have here with Sunday's Game 1 of this NLCS is a battle between the past two World Series champions.

Two clubs remarkably similar behind the plate, where the Giants' Buster Posey and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina really should finish one-two in the NL MVP voting, whichever order (with apologies to the Brewers' Ryan Braun).

Two resilient clubs with heart, talent and the distinct ability, clearly, to play from behind.

The symmetry is striking, right down to each club's mad dash across the country just to reach this series in time for first pitch.

The Giants, after clinching on Thursday afternoon, opted to hang around in Cincinnati to watch the Cardinals-Nationals Game 5 on television Friday night. They would have opened in D.C. on Saturday had the Nats won, or at home with a Cards win.

Their wait in the Midwest was one of the craziest holding patterns imaginable.

"We were at a mall," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "Then a movie. Then dinner. Then Gameworks."

Talk about a hot hand. At Gameworks, Affeldt reports, he, Posey and Matt Cain won 3,800 tickets.

"Cain did a good job," Affeldt says. "He hit a jackpot and got 1,000 tickets. We ended up giving them all to a young, 8-year-old kid who was there with his mom and dad."

So, hey, Cincinnati: If you see a young boy waiting for the school bus wearing a Giants cap, go easy on the lad. Had Mat Latos, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Co. done their jobs, the Giants would have blown town by Friday night.

As things turned out, they stayed in Cincinnati even longer than they had hoped. Buses took them to the airport around the seventh inning of the Cardinals-Nationals game and, with Washington winning 6-0, maintenance gassed up their charter flight with enough fuel to take them to D.C.

One problem: When the Cardinals came back to win, the Giants planes didn't have enough fuel to take them home. So they waited while the charter flight was re-fueled ... then there was a maintenance problem that delayed the flight further.

In all, the Giants sat on their plane some three-and-a-half hours, waiting. They didn't depart until after 3 a.m. Eastern Time, and landed in San Francisco around 5:30 a.m. Pacific time. The Cardinals arrived close to 7 a.m.

Still, they don't regret sitting tight in Ohio instead of flying home after Thursday's clincher.

"We talked to sleep people," Sabean says. "We consulted with people on what it would do, jet lag, time-zone changes."

The advice: Don't gamble. Don't leave the Eastern Time Zone to go home for what might only be one day, and risk turning right back around to fly across the country again.

Sitting on that plane, they twice were one strike from staying east. They were headed to D.C.

And then Yadier Molina and David Freese put on a clinic in plate discipline, and walked. Then Daniel Descalso tied the score with a two-run single and Pete Kozma broke the Nationals' hearts with another two-run single.

Even by typical dugout standards, what was happening on the Cardinals' bench during the comeback was off the charts.

"That was something I tried to explain to my wife this morning," Matheny says. "Most of the time, you don't wish to have the dugout atmosphere recorded and monitored. But there was so much going on from the first inning on."

Matheny credits ace Chris Carpenter and infielder Skip Schumaker, among others, for diamond-cutter skills at honing the focus.

The moment that will stay with closer Jason Motte came immediately after Carlos Beltran's double to lead off the ninth with the Cardinals trailing 7-5.

"This is going to be an epic comeback!" Carpenter screamed.

"I was thinking, 'This guy is insane,'" Motte says.

"There was an atmosphere there that I'd never seen before," Matheny says. "And it was borderline high school football, where the guys are screaming at the top of their lungs.

"The message was pretty consistent: Keep playing this game, and something good is going to happen. And then it turned into, this is going to be a story people are going to remember if you guys just keep it going."

The game changed so dramatically, and so quickly, that the clubbies were scrambling to wheel the champagne out of the Nationals' clubhouse, down the hall, and into the Cardinals' clubhouse as Motte was squeezing the final three outs in the bottom of the ninth.

"It had to come from somewhere," injured St. Louis shortstop Rafael Furcal says.

Good point. That stuff doesn't just materialize from nowhere.

With that one ninth-inning sequence for the ages, the Cardinals sent the Nationals' clubhouse back to the Prohibition Era, extended their own season and redirected the Giants west from Ohio, instead of east.

The Cardinals now are an astounding 6-0 in elimination games since the beginning of the 2011 postseason. They were down to their last strike twice against the Rangers in last year's World Series before coming back to win. They were down to their last strike twice Friday night.

"Someone asked me last night, 'How do you guys keep doing this?' " Motte says. "Maybe we're just stubborn."

Giants, too. They dumped the Reds in the Ohio River despite getting zero quality starts from a rotation that posted a 5.16 ERA in the Division Series.

This is going to be fun.

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