Champs until further notice
Unbelievable. Improbable. Heart-stopping. Somehow predictable? Those are some of the descriptors to try and describe yet another season-saving postseason comeback for the cardiac St. Louis Cardinals.
Evel Knievel wasn't this death-defying. Once again down to their final strike in the postseason, the Cards rose like a phoenix to score four times in the ninth inning to shock the Washington Nationals and advance to the National League Championship Series, winning 9-7.
What is really remarkable about this is the fact that somehow the defending World Champions have been lost in the shuffle even during the playoffs. With all the usual drama surrounding the Yankees, the amazing stories in Baltimore and Oakland and the great road comeback by the Giants, St. Louis has been relegated to bit player. No more.
Without Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, people figured, almost expected, that this team would regress, and rightfully so. You lose the best hitter of his time and one of the five greatest managers to ever live, and it seemed like an okay assumption.
But after having a good regular season, the wild-card game in Atlanta should have been a warning.
Instead, even after they took a 2-1 series lead, the Cardinals were still flying under the radar. And after Washington's Game 4 victory, many expected Gio Gonzalez to carry them home to the NLCS.
True to that storyline, Washington raced to a 6-0 lead, many sets were changed and the blogosphere was already preparing the fluke champion epitaph for this bunch from St. Louis.
Who is the NLDS MVP for St. Louis?
Oh, but that's why we love sports. An innocent RBI double by Matt Holliday in the fourth inning seemed to be a flare in a lightless night. But slowly, these resilient (is that a strong enough word?) Cards showed their mettle. Great at-bats in the fifth inning led to runs on a wild pitch and a bases-loaded walk.
Suddenly, the lead was cut in half.
But surely, the Nationals wouldn't let this go, right? An RBI groundout by Holliday made it 6-4 in the seventh. Time was not on St. Louis' side, but you felt the momentum had turned. Would they have enough time?
A Daniel Descalso home run in the eighth made it 6-5 and D.C. was in full-fledged panic mode. But then the Nationals seemed to settle matters with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning. It was 7-5 going into the ninth.
Just like in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals needed two runs to stay alive.
They got four. No second act necessary here. Two-run singles by Descalso and Pete Kozma turned Nationals Park into a very green mausoleum. At this point, the bottom of the ninth was a formality. Jason Motte retired the shell-shocked Washington hitters in order and, in a complete turnaround, it was over.
The champions who never quite get their due have a chance to get back to the World Series and repeat for the first time in 12 years.
Now we have a battle of the last two World Champions. Two teams who embody team and while they have stars, manage to be a greater collection than the sum of their individual talents. The Giants and the Cardinals are everything great about baseball. Gritty, resilient, persistent teams that play to the end and beyond. The winner will have definitely earned their way to the World Series.
One thing is for sure, though: Like wrestling legend Ric Flair famously used to say, "to be the man, you've got to beat the man."
The St. Louis Cardinals emphatically showed themselves to still be "The Man" Friday night.