Updated at: 10/13/2012 2:35 AM
By HOWARD FENDRICH
(AP) WASHINGTON - Carlos Beltran and the never-give-up St. Louis Cardinals began their latest comeback celebration quietly, plucking cans of beer from a blue bin that was hurriedly wheeled from the home to the visiting clubhouse in the middle of the ninth inning.
"How did that happen?!" Beltran asked, speaking to no one in particular.
Then in walked Pete Kozma, and the party really started. Teammates sprayed champagne bottles directly at the rookie shortstop who drove in the go-ahead runs against the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of their NL division series. Doesn’t matter how bad things look for these Cardinals. Trailing by a bunch, down to their last strike, they simply stay calm and do what it takes to win.
Erasing an early six-run hole slowly but surely, the defending World Series champs got a tying two-out, two-run single from Daniel Descalso and a go-ahead two-run single from Kozma in the top of the ninth inning, coming all the way back to beat the Nationals 9-7 Friday night and reach the NL championship series.
"We never quit," catcher Yadier Molina said. "That’s our rule."
Behind 3-0 before recording an out, behind 6-0 in the third inning, behind 7-5 with two outs and one on in the ninth, the Cardinals somehow, some way constructed the largest comeback ever in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to STATS LLC. No other club in this sort of ultimate pressure situation had come back from more than four down.
"We knew we had a lot of game left after they scored six. Nobody went up there trying to hit a six-run homer," said Descalso, whose solo shot in the eighth made it 6-5. "We needed to scratch and claw and get ourselves back in the game."
They did, barely: Descalso, who only hit .227 in the regular season, came up with a game-saving single that ticked off the glove of diving shortstop Ian Desmond to make it 7-all.
Then it was Kozma’s turn. He hit .236 in nearly 2,500 at-bats over six seasons in the minors _ the unheralded guy was mistakenly called "Cosmos" by Nationals manager Davey Johnson before Game 4 _ and was in the Cardinals’ lineup only because of an injury to Rafael Furcal. But he sent another pitch from Nationals closer Drew Storen into right field.
"I was looking for a good fastball to hit. He gave it to me," Kozma said. "You can’t write this stuff up. It just happens."
First-year manager Mike Matheny and the wild-card Cardinals, the last team to clinch a playoff spot this year, will open the NLCS at San Francisco on Sunday. Lance Lynn, who was used in relief against Washington, will go back to the rotation and start Game 1.
The Nationals, meanwhile, led the majors with 98 wins in 2012 but their run ended without All-Star ace Stephen Strasburg. The team said he’d thrown enough this year and didn’t put him on the playoff roster.
"I stand by my decision, and we’ll take the criticism as it comes," general manager Mike Rizzo said, "but we have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did."
Even without him, Washington had its chances to knock off the Cardinals. Oh, were there chances. For a total of five pitches, Storen was one strike away from ending the game. But on all five, the batters _ Yadier Molina and David Freese _ took a ball. Both walked, setting the stage for Descalso and Kozma.
"We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing I’ll say is that I just let these guys down," Storen said. "There’s a bad taste in my mouth and that’s going to stay there for a couple of months. It’s probably never going to leave."
Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who got the win with two innings of one-run relief, said: "Maybe we’re just stubborn. These guys, they don’t give away at-bats, that’s the thing."
When Motte got Ryan Zimmerman to pop out to second base a half-hour past midnight, the Cardinals streamed from the visiting dugout for hugs and high-fives. This, though, was nothing new to them.
Over the past two years, St. Louis is 6-0 when facing elimination, including victories in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas.
"It’s just the kind of people they are. They believe in themselves. They believe in each other," Matheny said. "It’s been this style of team all season long. They just don’t quit, and I think that just says a lot about their character."
Down to their last strike in the Fall Classic a year ago, trailing by the exact same 7-5 score in the ninth inning, the Cardinals rallied in Game 6 and then took the championship in what turned out to be the final year with the club for slugging first baseman Albert Pujols and then-manager Tony La Russa. Now Matheny, who got the Cardinals into the playoffs as the second NL wild-card team on the next-to-last day of the regular season, has them four wins away from another World Series appearance.
And to think: Washington, which won the NL East, got off to as good a start as possible Friday.
Seven pitches, three runs. Just like that, Jayson Werth’s double, Bryce Harper’s triple and Zimmerman’s homer got the hosts jump-started in their first Game 5.
That opening outburst, plus a big third inning highlighted by the 19-year-old Harper’s homer, made it 6-0.
St. Louis was not about to go gently into the night.
"Would have been easy for us to go down 6-0 and sort of roll over and let the crowd take us out of it," Descalso said, "and just let them have the game."
The Cardinals chipped away, chipped away. One run off 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez in the fourth, a pair in the fifth, another in the seventh off Edwin Jackson _ the Game 3 starter and loser, and an all-around surprising choice for midgame relief.
Suddenly, it was 6-4. Then came Descalso’s homer off Tyler Clippard in the eighth. After Kurt Suzuki drove in a run for Washington to get the lead back up to 7-5, a four-run ninth against Storen _ who had elbow surgery in April, returned to the team in July and reclaimed his closer role in September _ completed the reversal.
"We’ve had a great year overcoming a lot of hardship," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said, "and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
Beltran began the ninth with a double. Two quick outs later, the Cardinals were a strike away from going home. But Storen couldn’t get the last one past Molina. Same thing with Freese. Then came Descalso’s shot, sneaking past Desmond. The Nationals were inches, perhaps, from advancing. The Cardinals that near to their season finished.
Instead, they carry on, like they always seem to at this time of year. St. Louis is in the NLCS for the seventh time since the start of the 2000 season.
In Game 6 of last year’s World Series, the Cardinals twice were one strike from losing, before Freese’s two-run triple in the ninth, then Lance Berkman’s tying RBI single in the 10th. Freese’s homer won it in the 11th, the Rangers never got to pop their champagne corks, and St. Louis went on to a 6-2 victory in Game 7.
Here they were, doing it again. The alcoholic beverages waiting on ice for the Nationals wound up getting moved down the hallway to the Cardinals.
All while a Nationals Park-record crowd of 45,966 witnessed the first postseason series in the nation’s capital in 79 years. So seemingly close to a significant triumph, the Nationals _ and their fans _ left disappointed. Not long after the final out, a few dozen Cardinals fans gathered in the rows right behind the visiting dugout to chant, "Let’s go, Cards! Let’s go, Cards!"
Hours earlier, the red-dressed D.C. spectators began the night with chants of "Let’s go, Nats!" right after the national anthem, then filled the raw October air with roars as run after run scored for the home team. But over the final innings, those Washington baseball fans wound up looking on with hearts in throats.
At the outset, highlights of leadoff hitter Werth’s epic, 13-pitch at-bat from about 25 1/2 hours before were shown on the video board as he began the bottom of the first. On Thursday night, he ended Game 4 with a homer in the bottom of the ninth that gave Washington a 2-1 victory.
Picking up right where he left off, Werth doubled to the left-field corner off Adam Wainwright, and Harper followed with an RBI triple off the wall in left-center. Harper won’t turn 20 until Tuesday; no other teen had a postseason three-bagger, according to STATS.
Harper was 1 for 18 for a .056 batting average _ yes, .056 _ with six strikeouts and zero RBIs in the NLDS until that moment. Zimmerman completed the crescendo by driving an 86 mph cutter into the first row beyond the wall in right-center.
In 11 previous postseason appearances _ mainly as a reliever _ Wainwright never had allowed more than one run in any entire outing, much less three in a single inning.
Got worse in the third. Harper led off with a homer, to the same area of right-center as Zimmerman’s but a few rows deeper. Zimmerman doubled, and Michael Morse turned on the next pitch for a two-run homer to left that made it 6-0.
That was it for Wainwright, whose evening was over after 53 pitches across 2 1-3 innings.
His season, however, will continue. He plays for the can’t-quit Cardinals, after all.
"We just gave ourselves a chance to come back and be within striking distance," Descalso said. "And the ninth inning was pretty remarkable."
Actually, this is what the Cardinals do.
They turn losses into wins, and then they steal the other guys’ bubbly.
NOTES: Beltran went 3 for 3 plus two walks. ... The 9-7 final score might be familiar to longtime Washington baseball historians. In the last all-or-nothing game for a Washington baseball team, the Senators lost Game 7 of the 1925 World Series at Pittsburgh by the exact same score when Walter Johnson couldn’t hold a 6-3 lead. ... This year is the first time that all four division series went the distance, giving baseball fans 20 of a possible 20 games to follow. ... LHP Madison Bumgarner will pitch Game 1 on Sunday for the Giants, who came back after dropping the first two games of their NLDS against the Reds and won Game 5 of that series on Thursday.
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)