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10/13/2012 2:21 AM EDT
Cards score 4 in 9th, beat Nats 9-7, reach NLCS
ST LOUIS 9, WASHINGTON 7

By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Sports Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.



---



Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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