Before he left the mound, trailing 6-0 in the third inning, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright looked at his infielders and said, “Pick me up.”
After the game, drenched in champagne, replaying the greatest comeback in an elimination game in postseason history, Wainwright suddenly was at a loss of words.
“I’m speechless,” he said.
Call it Miracle II. October Redux. The St. Louis Sequel.
And heaven help the San Francisco Giants, who now must figure out how to beat the defending World Series champions, a team that lost first baseman Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan last offseason and still cannot be denied.
To reach the NLCS, the Cardinals literally had to repeat history. They trailed, 7-5 in the ninth inning of Game 6 in last year’s World Series against the Texas Rangers. And they trailed, 7-5, in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the Division Series on Friday night against the Washington Nationals.
In some ways, this comeback, this 9-7 victory, this insanity, was even more remarkable than the original.
In Game 6, the Cardinals were home at Busch Stadium, and their biggest deficit was three runs. They went down to their last strike in three separate innings before winning in the 11th, 10-9.
On Friday night, the Cardinals were on the road and fell behind by six runs. They were down to their last strike three times in one inning — the ninth — yet rallied behind an even more improbable set of heroes.
The two-run, two-out game-tying single came from second baseman Daniel Descalso, a platoon player for much of the season who in this series became — in the words of Nationals manager Davey Johnson — “Rod Carew with power.”
The two-run, two-out, two-strike go-ahead single came from shortstop Pete Kozma, who did not join the team until after Rafael Furcal blew out his elbow on Aug. 30 and was a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster before that.
Oh yes, let’s not forget two the rookie relievers, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, who combined to work 2 2/3 perfect innings in relief of Wainwright, giving the offense a chance to recover and forming a bridge to the team’s late-inning relievers.
The St. Louis dugout was in absolute bedlam as the comeback unfolded in the ninth, players spilling out onto the field to celebrate the big hits, right-hander Chris Carpenter running around, exhorting his teammates, according to closer Jason Motte.
“My goodness, I mean, I almost broke an ankle,” Kelly said. “I think everyone almost broke an ankle. We were jumping and down, acting like we were 12 years old. I’m just surprised I didn’t get hurt jumping up and down on those stairs.”
The Nationals, appearing in the postseason for the first time, were not exactly innocent bystanders in all this. Their inexperience showed, and Johnson, their veteran manager, left himself open for first-guessing, second-guessing and winter-long guessing, take your pick.
Johnson stuck too long with left-hander Gio Gonzalez, made an ill-fated decision to use righty Edwin Jackson in relief and failed to bunt with Ian Desmond after the first two Nats reached base in the eighth, an inning in which the team scored one insurance run but possibly could have had more.
As it turned out, the Nats’ offense managed just one run in 6 2/3 innings against the Cardinals’ bullpen. Their second baseman, Danny Espinosa, failed to turn a double play in the sixth, enabling the Cardinals to start at the top of the order the next inning and produce their fourth run. And Drew Storen failed to hold a two-run lead with two outs and a runner on third in the ninth, issuing back-to-back walks to Yadier Molina and David Freese before allowing the hits by Descalso and Kozma.
The inning began with the second double of the game by Carlos Beltran, who reached base five times and improved his career postseason line to .375/.488/.817 in 129 plate appearances. But after Matt Holliday grounded out and Allen Craig struck out, Storen seemed in control.
The at-bats by Molina and Freese turned the inning.
Molina walked after laying off two straight sliders with the count 2-2. Freese said he was tempted to try to hit a home run, but after watching Molina knew he had to maintain his discipline. He fell behind 1-2, then took three straight pitches — a slider, four-seam fastball and sinker — to load the bases for Descalso.
During the regular season, Descalso batted .227 with a .627 OPS in 426 plate appearances. During the Division Series, he was perhaps the Cardinals’ toughest out, going 7-for-19 with two homers and six RBIs.
On this night alone, he already had hit a leadoff double and scored the Cardinals’ second run in the fifth, then hit a leadoff home run off right-hander Tyler Clippard in the eighth to reduce the deficit to 6-5.
“We knew we had a lot of game left after they scored six,” Descalso said. “Nobody went up there trying to hit a six run homer. We needed to scratch and claw and get ourselves back in the game, get ourselves back in striking distance, get some big at bats down the stretch.”
Descalso’s at-bat against Storen lasted only one pitch. He drilled a fastball off shortstop Desmond’s glove for a two-run single that tied the score, 7-7.
Kozma, whom TBS analyst Dennis Eckersley later referred to as “Bucky Dent’s grandson,” fell behind 0-2 before rallying to 2-2, then sliced his two-run single to right field to make it 9-7.
In the middle of all this, first-year manager Mike Matheny was fretting that he had only player left on his bench, catcher Tony Cruz. Motte had entered the game the previous inning, and Matheny didn’t want to pinch-hit for him. But Motte was scheduled to bat after Kozma.
“Strategically, we were thinking first and foremost about how to keep Jason Motte in the game,” Matheny said. “If we get to the point, though, where he needs to go up there and hit, we would have had to have used the last guy on our bench. We were in a tough spot.”
Kozma’s hit, then, came just in time, saving Matheny from burning his last player and losing his closer. (Cruz entered the game in the bottom half as a defensive substitute.) Motte hit for himself and struck out in his first plate appearance of the season and only the fifth of his career. He then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, and just like that, it was over, the Cardinals triumphant, the Nationals stunned.
“I was freezing,” said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who sat in the stands on a windy, 50-degree night at Nationals Park. “But I’ll tell you, my temperature went up.”
All of their temperatures did.
Wainwright could have been the goat, allowing six runs — including three homers — in 2 1/3 innings. But Matheny said Wainwright instead became one of the loudest Cardinals in the dugout, standing on the top step, screaming, “Hey, keep pushing, we will do something special.”
The Cardinals never stopped pushing. They indeed did something special.