The St. Louis Cardinals use all 27 outs. Like the Texas Rangers before them, the Washington Nationals had to learn the hard way.
Picking up right where they left off in Game 4, the Nationals opened Game 5 of their NLDS against the defending World Series champs with three runs in the first inning. By the end of the third, the Nats had chased Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright and grabbed a 6-0 lead. With homers by Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Mike Morse already in the books, it looked like Davey Johnson's club would cruise into the NLCS.
Not so fast.
"We knew there was a lot of game left and we just wanted to chip and be able to get one here and two there. And we put ourselves within striking distance and we gave ourselves a chance," Daniel Descalso told Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network on the field after the game. "And that's all you can really do when you get down early. You can't hit a six-run homer but you can chip away and that's exactly what we did tonight."
As described by Descalso, the Cardinals did chip away, picking up a run in the fourth, a pair in the fifth, another in the seventh and a fifth in the top of the eighth. Descalso accounted for that score in the eighth inning with a solo home run off Tyler Clippard to pull the Cards within 6-5.
"It's just the kind of people they are. They believe in themselves. They believe in each other," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny after the game, per The Associated Press. "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."
While the Cards' hitters were whittling away the Nationals' edge, the relievers that Matheny sent to the hill after pulling Wainwright doused the hot hitters emerging from the other dugout. Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs combined for 4.2 scoreless, one-hit frames for the Cardinals.
After Kurt Suzuki drove in a Nationals insurance run in the home eighth off Cards closer Jason Motte, Washington's closer Drew Storen took the mound with a chance to close out the series in front of a record-setting crowd of 45,966 at Nationals Park (via @MLB_PR). After allowing a leadoff double to the otherworldly Carlos Beltran (3-3 with, two runs, two walks in Game 5), the right-handed reliever retired Matt Holliday and Allan Craig to bring the Nationals within an out of the NLCS.
That was as close as they would get.
Yadier Molina coaxed a walk. David Freese did the same. With the bases loaded, Daniel Descalso drove in a pair of runs to level the game, 7-7, with a hard single up the middle that glanced off the glove of Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. Pete Kozma then kept the merry-go-round circling with another hit that brought home two more runs.
Cardinals closer Jason Motte set down the side in order in the home ninth to preserve the improbable 9-7 win. According to STATS LLC, this was the largest comeback ever in a winner-take-all playoff contest.
While the deficit overcome may have been historic, the down-to-the-last-out drama was nothing new for these Cardiac Cardinals. Down to their final strike in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers, Freese tripled home two runs to force extra innings. Down to their last strike again in the bottom of the tenth, Lance Berkman drove in the tying run. Freese homered in the bottom of the 11 to force a Game 7. The Rangers bounced back to take an early lead in Game 7 but the Cardinals would not be denied, rallying once again for a 6-2 win. Even after the notable departures of Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, the team is on another deep run into the postseason thanks to its penchant for late-inning heroics.
"We know they are going to keep battling. But we were in good position," Nationals manager Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, via MLB.com. "I mean, the guys did what they had to do to get to your closer, a couple‑run lead, and you know, tying run is up, got two outs. You know, got to make 'em earn it, and unfortunately they did. You learn from it."
The NLCS begins on Sunday.