Print and Go Back ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2012 [Print without images]

Friday, October 12, 2012
Updated: October 13, 1:58 PM ET
Comeback Cards do it again

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- How do they do it? How do we explain it? How can we be watching it?

You would think the St. Louis Cardinals would run out of October miracles one of these autumns. Wouldn't you? But this is what they do. This is who they are. This is what makes them special. This is what makes them one of the toughest teams of modern times.

One out away? One strike away? One loss away? So what? If they could do it once, when it was only the World Frigging Series on the line, why couldn't they do it again -- in the house of the winningest team in baseball?

So there the Cardinals were again Friday night, one strike from The End. Another team's crowd was roaring. Another team's ballpark was shaking. Another team's closer was holding their season in his hands.

And then ... you know what happened. The impossible happened. Again.

Adam Wainwright
Wainwright never found his rhythm, allowing six runs (and three homers) before being removed in the third.

"Hey, it's not impossible," closer Jason Motte said as his team celebrated the stunning 9-7 victory that sent the Cardinals jetting through the night to San Francisco for a National League Championship Series duel of the past two World Series champs. "It's not impossible because we keep doing it."

Yeah, good point. These Cardinals keep doing it, all right. Like no one else has ever done it.

Twelve months ago, they went into the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, trailing 7-5, and won. Friday night, they went into the ninth inning of a win-or-go-home Game 5 of the NL Division Series, down 7-5 again, and won. Again. Seriously.

You decide which of those reincarnations was more incredible, more impossible: Down to their last strike of the World Series in back-to-back innings? Or trailing by six runs ON THE ROAD, with a guy who might win the Cy Young (Gio Gonzalez) on the mound?

Keep in mind, before you answer, that in the 109-year history of postseason play, no team had fallen more than four runs behind in a winner-take-all game and come back to win.

Also keep in mind that only one team in postseason history -- the 1992 Braves, in the legendary Francisco Cabrera Game -- had trailed by two runs or more in the ninth inning of a winner-take-all game and roared back to win.

And, finally, keep in mind that only four teams had ever trailed by six runs or more at any point in any postseason game and found a way to win.

Until this game. Until Friday night in our nation's capital. So you could make an excellent case that it was this game, in Nationals Park, that topped that game 12 months ago -- yep, even a World Series elimination game.

"Boy, I don't know," left fielder Matt Holliday said. "Obviously, I mean the magnitude of this isn't quite the same as Game 6 of a World Series. But as far as, if you just sort of looked at the odds and what we had to overcome, this was just as hard to fathom as Game 6."

We can assure you that for most of this night, not a single one of the 45,966 fans who filled Nationals Park ever fathomed it. Not for a second.

Bryce Harper
Harper tripled and homered in his first two at-bats, and the nation's capital was euphoric.

Not after the Nationals became the second team in postseason history to kick off a game with three straight extra-base hits -- double, triple, homer -- and took a 3-0 lead within Adam Wainwright's first seven pitches.

Not after Bryce Harper and Michael Morse mashed a pair of titanic home runs in the third inning to extend that Nationals lead to 6-0, a mere seven outs into this game.

As Morse rampaged around the bases, as a victory-starved town partied and as Wainwright trudged slowly toward the dugout, it might have looked to folks with short memories as if the reign of the defending champs was over. But the men in the visitors' dugout never got that memo.

"They came out blazing," David Freese, last year's One Strike Away hero, would say later about the Nationals. "This place was on fire. I don't think this stadium could get any louder. ... But we just fight back."

Wow. Do they ever. It's hard to describe the fight it takes, the toughness it takes, the inner strength it takes, to keep competing at times like that. But it's part of this team's DNA. And it's one reason -- maybe the most important reason -- this team is still playing.

"With these guys, I never think it's over, because they just don't quit," Motte said, the champagne still cascading down his face. "These guys in here don't ever give up. They didn't give at-bats away early in the game, when we were down, 6-0. They didn't go up there and say, 'Aw, this game's over.' They just chip away, chip away, chip away. That's what we've always done. That's the kind of guys we have on this ballclub."

So a fourth-inning run made it a 6-1 game. Two fifth-inning runs made it a 6-3 game. A seventh-inning run made it 6-4. Then Daniel Descalso, the No. 7 hitter, launched a solo home run in the eighth, and it was 6-5. But even when Motte allowed what seemed like a humongous insurance run to the Nationals in the bottom of the eighth, the Cardinals' dugout throbbed with life.

Daniel Descalso
Descalso's eighth-inning homer was a precursor of what was to come in the ninth.

Then Carlos Beltran, a man who said he watched every pitch of Game 6 of that World Series last October on the flat screen in his house, marched up to lead off the ninth. And roped a 95 mile an hour Drew Storen heater up the gap for a double.

It was the fifth time Beltran had reached base in this game (via two doubles, a single and two walks). It made him just the second player in history to reach base five times by hit, walk or hit-by-pitch in a win-or-else postseason game. You might have heard of the other guy: Babe Ruth.

But the true meaning of this double wasn't the history it made. The moment that baseball landed on the glistening green outfield grass, it was hard not to have this funny feeling that you'd seen this before.

"When Carlos got that hit," Motte said, "it was like, here we go again."

An infield out by Holliday moved Beltran to third. And as he stood on third base, "something happened to me, man," Beltran would reveal later, in one of the happiest locker rooms he has ever dressed in. He had a flashback, he said, to that World Series game he had watched from Puerto Rico, as an outsider, in a previous October life.

"Something came into my head when I was at third base," Beltran went on. "I was thinking, 'This team came back from a two-run deficit twice last year, in the [World Series].' And I was thinking, 'I think we can do that here. I think we can do that again.' And it was, like, then it happened, man. And I was like, this is unbelievable. It's hard for me to put into words what just happened."

Well, he wasn't the only one. He stood on third base and watched Yadier Molina get down to his final strike -- and draw a walk. Then Freese, too, would get down to his final strike -- and draw another walk.

You can watch a lot of baseball games -- a hundred, a thousand, a million -- and never see a better string of tough at-bats. Especially in a spot in which the only thing at stake was an entire season. But this is the Cardinals. This is what they do. This is who they are. This is how they go about it. And this is where they draw on the powerful memories of what they accomplished just a year ago this time.

Bryce Harper
Harper was in a very different mood by game's end, and he and the rest of the Nats now face a long winter ahead.

"Anybody who has been in the postseason understands that it affects everybody differently," Freese said. "You've got to learn from it. You've got to embrace it. You've got to understand what's at stake and just lay it all out there."

A year ago, Daniel Descalso was mostly just a defensive replacement on the team that won it all. But not on this team. Not on this night.

He stood just outside the batter's box and watched Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty jog to the mound to confer with Storen, as a packed ballpark stirred uneasily. Descalso, who had already doubled and homered in this game, had a vision of the first-pitch fastball Storen was about to throw him -- and pounded it toward the middle.

The baseball skipped off the glove of shortstop Ian Desmond and into the open spaces beyond the infield. One run would score. Two runs would score. And this game was tied. It was 12:14 a.m., and shock waves ripped through Nationals Park.

Three minutes later, Pete Kozma -- PETER KOZMA -- was stroking Storen's 28th pitch of the inning into right field. One more run would score. A second run would score. Had this just happened? Really? It was Cardinals 9, Nationals 7? Really? How?

How could this possibly have happened? What word in the dictionary could possibly describe what just happened?

"Miraculous," Wainwright said. "That's the word that comes to mind. Miraculous."

But is it really miraculous when the same team keeps doing it over and over? The Cardinals won two astonishing win-or-go-fishing baseball games last October. Now they've won two more, in the span of a week, this October.

Before this team came along, only one other team in history won two sudden-death games in back-to-back Octobers. And that was the great Oakland A's of 1972 and '73 -- nearly 40 years ago.

But now along comes a Cardinals team that has made it the specialty of the house. So when something keeps happening over and over, even when it's this unlikely, is it really accurate to call it miraculous?

"You know what?" Beltran said. "I believe in miracles."

And after what his team just did, in one more legendary October baseball game, it's about time the rest of us started believing right along with him.