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.