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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The story of the Cardinals comeback: In the players' own words

The story of the comeback: In the players' own words

SAN FRANCISCO • The Cardinals' chartered flight arrived in San Francisco about 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, after a long journey through the night. Fatigue had never felt so good. Sleep had rarely been this satisfying. Yes, this baseball team really was floating through the clouds.
The weary but happy traveling party was still trying to process the magnitude of the Cardinals' shocking 9-7 win over the Washington Nationals in the clinching Game 5 of the NL division series. It wasn't a dream. It just seemed that way.
"We were just exhausted after what happened," Cardinals closer Jason Motte said. "Even during the celebration after the game, I looked around and people were like, 'What in the heck is going on? Is this really happening right now?' It was just crazy."
This may have been the biggest surprise victory in Washington since another tenacious competitor from Missouri, President Harry S Truman, defeated challenger Thomas Dewey to win re-election in an upset that stunned the nation.
The Cardinals had rallied from a 6-0 deficit. They were down 7-5 going into the ninth inning, but scored four runs to eliminate the Nationals and advance to the NL championship series, which begins Sunday night at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
When the Cardinals gathered in the visitors' clubhouse Saturday to prepare for a late-afternoon workout, they were still reliving the emotions from their incredible comeback.
It began with a stirring speech in the dugout by pitcher Chris Carpenter, the team's ace and leader. Carpenter's rallying cry was picked up by Skip Schumaker. The rest of the team joined in, with players encouraging each other to keep fighting and refuse to succumb to the Nationals or their raucous fans.
Several Cardinals said they'd never been in a dugout that was so alive, seemingly wired with an endless current of energy.
"There was an atmosphere there that I'd never seen before," manager Mike Matheny said. "It was borderline high school football, where the guys are screaming at the top of their lungs."
This is the story of the comeback, in the players' own words:
The Nationals slammed three homers to knock Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright out of the game in the third inning. The Cardinals scored in the top of the fourth, but Washington still had a healthy 6-1 lead. That's when Carpenter went to work in the dugout, trying to boost his teammates' morale.
CARPENTER: "I was just trying to do everything I can to keep our guys motivated, and keep them going. And that's when I started talking about it. 'Hey, let's make this epic comeback. Let's ruin everybody's night. The crowd thinks they've got this game. They're beating us 6-1, and our stud (Wainwright) is out of the game, and we're going through our bullpen. It may look bad, but why can't we come back? Get one run at a time, keep on it, and see what happens.' I was nonstop the whole time."
SCHUMAKER: "Carp says right away, 'Boys, this is going to be an epic comeback. Just epic.' And he kept saying that over and over. Then I started thinking the same thing. I started buying in on it. I started saying it, too. Then everyone started believing. We were just as loud as we could be."
A turning point came when Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez faded and was pulled after five innings. That gave the Cardinals a chance to exploit a tired Washington bullpen. The Cardinals sensed that the Nationals were getting nervous and playing tight.
SCHUMAKER: "Before the series started, I said you really couldn't put a price tag on experience. A lot of guys had the deer-in-the-headlights look. And I'm not going to mention names, but we saw them taking a couple of deep breaths between pitches, and they were up four or five runs. When we saw that, we started talking. We weren't taking any deep breaths. We were the ones trying to push. It felt like we had the momentum, which is crazy to say. But it really felt that way."
The Cardinals pushed back and cut the lead to 6-5. The Washington crowd was turning anxious. The Nationals got a run in the bottom of the eighth to lead 7-5. Carlos Beltran led off the ninth with a double off Nationals reliever Drew Storen.
SCHUMAKER: "We felt that if we could get one guy on, anything could happen. Sure enough, Carlos hits a double right away. And we felt like, 'All right, this is it. Let's go.'"
But Storen quickly retired Matt Holliday and Allen Craig, and the Nationals needed only one more out to end the Cardinals' season. Then Yadier Molina and David Freese demonstrated impressive poise and patience under pressure. They each faced two-strike counts, meaning that the Cardinals were one strike away from being finished. Molina and Freese worked Storen for consecutive walks. The Cardinals had the bases loaded.
MOTTE: "When Carlos got that hit, I just started laughing. I was like, 'Here we go again.' Even when we had two outs, Yadi was going up, and people in the dugout were shouting, 'Just get it to Freese. Get it to Freese.' Yadi got us to Freese, and Freese ends up walking, too."
Wainwright had put aside his personal disappointment to join Carpenter and Schumaker in leading the dugout pep squad.
WAINWRIGHT: "You could feel that there's something in the air. There's something flowing through that dugout. And the hitters go up to the box, and it's almost like a foregone conclusion. It's crazy, but we feel like something is about to happen. Something very big. And gosh dang if it doesn't."
Daniel Descalso was up next, and he ripped Storen's first pitch for a two-run single that tied the game 7-7. The Cardinals went wild. Leaping. Climbing to the top of the dugout step. Running out to greet the runners who had just scored.
CARPENTER: "I'm pretty professional and I don't try to do anything to show the other team up, but we're turning into a college team. We're out on the field, jumping up and down. We hadn't won yet, but we were on the top step of the dugout, just like a college team. We couldn't control it. I've never done that before. I'm up on the top step. Most of our team is in the on-deck circle, hugging and high-fiving, as if we'd had a walk-off win. But we weren't even winning at that point."
Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma was the next hitter in line. He's been a major contributor, a pleasant surprise, after being called up from the minors at the end of August. After falling behind 0-2 in the count, Kozma battled back to line a two-run single to right.
Miraculously, the Cardinals were ahead 9-7.
Motte put down the Nationals in order in the bottom of the ninth, and the Cardinals were off to San Francisco.
CARPENTER: "Unbelievable. We're down two, a man on third, two outs. And it starts coming together. When Descalso gets that hit, the place just erupts. Then it's Koz. Well, why not Koz? You've been doing it for a month and a half. So why not now? He hits that ball over the first baseman's head, and there was just unbelievably great emotion and excitement. It was just an amazing night. It was just awesome. I don't know what to tell you. We had a man on third and two outs and we're down to our last strike — twice. And we scored four runs to win, and to move on. It was an epic comeback, just like we talked about all night long."
Before the clubhouse was opened to reporters, Wainwright wanted to say a few words to his teammates to thank them for rescuing Game 5 after Washington tagged him for the 6-0 lead.
WAINWRIGHT: "I told them all, 'I'm just real proud to be a St. Louis Cardinal, and to be your teammate right now.' That show of heart, and that show of fortitude right there? It was special for me to watch. It was just special for the fans to watch. I was taken aback, and moved by what they'd done. I just felt I needed to tell the guys just what it meant to me, and a lot of people who love the Cardinals. This is an amazing team. Don't ever doubt our hearts. Because we have heart."

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