The St. Louis Cardinals are making quite a reputation for themselves. Entering Game 5 of their National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals had won five straight winner-take-all games. It looked like their streak would end, though, as they fell behind 6-0 in the third inning and trailed 7-5 in the ninth. But somehow they made it six in a row, scoring four runs against Nationals closer Drew Storen and holding on for a 9-7 victory to earn a shot at the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series.
It took 79 years for a Washington, D.C. baseball team to reach the postseason. And early on, it sure looked like the Nationals would become the first D.C. club to actually win a postseason series since 1924.
In Game 1 of this series, Adam Wainwright struck out 10 Nationals in only 5⅔ innings. He also gave up six hits and walked three Nationals, and took a no-decision in a game the Cardinals ultimately lost. But it was a fine performance.
He couldn't duplicate that in Game 5. Instead, Wainwright's outing was reminiscent of his start against the Nationals on the last day of August, when he gave up six runs in 2⅔ innings. Which was, in fact, exactly what he did Friday night, in the Cardinals' biggest game of the season.
Three batters into the game, the Cardinals were down 3-0 after Jayson Werth doubled, Bryce Harper tripled, and Ryan Zimmerman homered.
Wainwright did strike out the next three Nationals, and you might have guessed he was back on track.
He wasn't. In the third, Harper led off with a home run -- the first postseason homer of his young career, and probably the first of many -- and three batters later, Mike Morse homered with Zimmerman aboard to make the score 6-0.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had seen enough, and went to his bullpen. For quite a while, his bullpen pitched brilliantly. And meanwhile, the Cardinals just kept chipping away.
Gio Gonzalez, who walked seven Cardinals in Game 1, started Game 5 for the Nationals. He looked good for three innings, but gave up a run in the third and -- thanks largely to three walks -- two more in the fifth. In the seventh, facing ex-Cardinal Edwin Jackson, the Cardinals made it 6-4. And in the eighth, Daniel Descalso greeted reliever Tyler Clippard with a homer to make it 6-5.
The Cardinals entered Game 5 having won five straight do-or-die elimination games, the last of them Game 7 against the Rangers in last fall's World Series. So everybody pulling for the Nationals probably felt quite a bit better when the Nats plated an insurance run in the bottom of eighth, when Kurt Suzuki -- with Cardinals closer Jason Motte pitching -- singled home Adam LaRoche to make the score 7-5.
That run looked especially good when Carlos Beltrán led off the the ninth with a ringing double to deep center field against Nationals closer Drew Storen. But that run wasn't nearly enough.
Yes, Storen retired Matt Holliday on a grounder to third. Yes, he struck out Allen Craig.
And yes, five times the Cardinals were down to their last strike. Five times, Storen couldn't get that strike. Yadier Molina came up after Craig, had a 2-and-2 count, and walked. David Freese was behind in the count, 1-and-2, and walked. That loaded the bases for Descalso, who drove Storen's first pitch up the middle; Ian Desmond got some leather on it, but Beltran and pinch-runner Chambers scored easily to tie the game, Freese going to third.
Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma, who reportedly was nearly cut from the Cardinals' 40-man roster during the season, came up next, Mike Matheny eschewing a pinch hitter. Kozma took two fastballs for strikes, then a couple of balls, then ripped a single into right field, with both Freese and Descalso (who'd stolen second base, unopposed) scoring.
Still on the mound, Storen struck out Motte to end the inning and finally made his way to the dugout. You can't help wondering if those 26 pitches he threw in Game 4 -- more than he'd thrown in a game all season -- left him a bit fatigued in Game 5, when Davey Johnson asked him to throw another 33.
The top of the Nationals' lineup, which began the game in such rousing fashion, got another shot in the bottom of the ninth. But with Motte back on the mound, Werth flied out, Harper struck out on a high fastball, and Ryan Zimmerman lifted a high pop to Descalso.
So make it six straight for the never-say-die St. Louis Cardinals.
History? The Cardinals' comeback from a six-run deficit was the largest ever for a postseason team in a do-or-die situation. Now they travel to San Francisco to meet the Giants in the NLCS. Meanwhile, Johnson is left to lament a historic collapse in which his pitchers issued eight walks.
P.S. In case you somehow missed them, here is Descalso's hit that tied the game ...
... and here's Kozma's that won it: