When the St. Louis Cardinals overcame a six-run deficit to come back and beat the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, they accomplished the greatest comeback in a winner-take-all game in postseason history.
For the Cardiac Cards, though, it was just another day at the office. It begs the question, why are the Cardinals, an above-average team in the regular season, so ridiculously hard to send home in the postseason?
The answer, in a word, is pressure, both in terms of how they can handle it and how they can apply it.
In terms of handling it, the Cardinals have history on their side, and that history snowballs. Because they have come back so many times, they don't believe they can come back, they know they will come back.
Down to the last strike? Who cares? Thrice they have been down to their last strike in the last two seasons. Thrice they have won.
On the one hand, that's miraculous. On the other, that's their history. It takes the question, can we win? out of their minds, and thus it takes the pressure off of them.
They also apply pressure like no other team in baseball because of their balanced lineup.
This year they had five different hitters who had 20 home runs or more. Carlos Beltran (32), Matt Holliday (27), Allen Craig (22), Yadier Molina (22) and David Freese (20) all eclipsed the mark.
Those five plus Pete Kozma, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay all had an OPS of .800 or better.
That kind of balance in the lineup applies a different kind of pressure to a pitcher than one or two big sluggers does. It's a constant pressure, especially when runners are getting on base. And the Cardinals led the National League in on-base percentage this year with .338.
It's one thing to have the pressure of facing an elite hitter or two. It's another to face a steady stream of hitters who have an OPS of .800 or better. There's no chance to let up.
Game 5 was a perfect example of what that kind of pressure can do. After falling behind 6-0 through three innings, they put the leadoff runner on in their half of every inning.
In the top of the fourth, Beltran walked and then Holliday doubled him in. In the top of the fifth, Dennis Descalso doubled, and was brought home on a wild pitch to Beltran.
In the top of the sixth, Freese led off with a single, but never found his way home.
In the top of the seventh Jon Jay walked, advanced to third on a Beltran double, and then came home on a groundout.
In the top of the eighth, Descalso led off the inning with a home run.
In the top of the ninth, Beltran led of with a double. The rest is literally history.
Nationals pitchers constantly had the pressure of having a runner on base and a quality hitter at bat. The team saw their massive lead get smaller and smaller.
The Cardinals were winning by attrition. Every pitch was big, and the psyche of the Nationals was taking a beating, even though they were the team in front.
So why don't the Cardinals win the same way in the regular season? Because the pressure isn't there.
Teams aren't worried about "what happens if..." in the throes of a 6-0 late-July game. In October, though, every pitch has the potential to change a season.
In the regular season if you lose 70 games, you can still win the World Series. In the postseason, in a win-or-go-home game, if you lose that game your season is over. It's all about the pressure.
The reason the Cardinals are so irrepressible is that they are a team that is better equipped to handle pressure. They are more adjusted to handling pressure. They are built to apply it. Ultimately, Major League Baseball in the postseason is just about pressure.
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