WASHINGTON • It took someone who had been in their cleats, had known the weight of a game-changing, season-saving at-bat and come through with a win to describe the sudden heroics that found Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma in the ninth inning Friday.
David Freese had been there, done that, got the trophy.
Descalso and Kozma picked up October by osmosis.
"The thing about the postseason is if you’re unfazed you’ve got a shot," Freese said. "That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to embrace what you’re a part of. You look into their eyes, and they’re unfazed. Huge hits. Huge hits for us."
In back-to-back at-bats, Descalso and Kozma upended the Washington Nationals and completed the next unlikeliest comeback in a string of them for the Cardinals in the postseason. Descalso delivered a two-run, two-out single that tied Game 5 in the ninth, and Kozma followed with a two-run single that won it, 9-7, at Nationals Park. Kozma’s two-strike base hit down the right-field line sends the Cardinals to the National League championship series for the second consecutive year and for the seventh time since 2000.
That the Cardinals won with only one strike and one out to give has become old hat these past two Octobers.
Who was rallying them was new.
"You look up and we’re back in it," general manager John Mozeliak said from the champagne drenched clubhouse late Friday night. "It’s amazing how these guys grind out at-bats. … It’s a compliment to what we try to do here, which is to create some depth in our lineup. As you can tell the contributions come from anywhere. You never know on a given day where we’re going to get it. Clearly in this series, the seventh, eighth, and ninth spots in the order produced."
The seventh and eighth spots in the Cardinals’ lineup for all six games of the playoffs so far have been manned by Descalso and Kozma. In the five-game series against the Nationals, the two middle infielders combined to drive in 11 of the Cardinals’ 29 runs. Kozma went four-for-16 in the series, though two of his four hits went for extra-bases. His home run in Game 3 of the series set the stage for a rout. Descalso went six-for-19 in the series and, as teammate Matt Holliday said, "could have had five home runs in the series." He had one taken away by a catch in right field by Jayson Werth.
He still finished with two.
He had four during the regular season.
Kozma had two hits in five at-bats during the decisive Game 5. His single in the fifth inning helped bring the tying run to the plate, though the Cardinals didn’t convert on their chances then. Descalso finished a triple shy of the cycle as he went three-for-five and scored three of the Cardinals’ nine runs. That kind of production from the bottom of the order is the biggest reason why the Cardinals – as their rookie bullpen held watertight for the middle innings – were able to create the largest rally in an elimination game. The Nationals led 6-0 after three innings, but because the Cardinals got a run here and a run there without giving away an inning to the Nats with meek production at the bottom of the order, they nibbled away the lead. The momentum didn’t stall when the final three hitters in the lineup hit.
"If you have a chance to score every inning, if the bottom of the order has the ability to produce runs and produce baserunners, that puts a lot of pressure on the other team," Holliday said. "With those two guys, we have had that."
Never bigger than in the ninth.
Against Washington starter Drew Storen, two of the Cardinals’ key October contributors from a year ago fell to their final strike before working a walk. Yadier Molina, an MVP candidate this year, walked as the potential tying run. Freese, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series a year ago, got a full-count walk from Storen to load the bases. That left Descalso with two outs and a chance to pull a Freese.
It was Descalso’s homer to lead off the eighth inning that put the Cardinals within a run headed into the bottom of the eighth. A pivotal part of the rally in Game 6 of the World Series last year, Descalso got to drive in the runs this time. In the ninth, he laced a liner that glanced off shortstop Ian Desmond’s glove and into center field to bring home two runs and tie the game.
"He got that hit, and it took the edge off," Kozma said.
Kozma fell behind 0-2 to Storen. He wasn’t around October and yet approached it like he was. He worked back into the count, 2-2, and then stung a two-run single to right field. That flipped the game and advanced the Cardinals to San Francisco for the NLCS.
"If you’re going to win, if you’re going to win not only a series but go on and win a championship, it’s going to take every guy in the lineup, every guy on the team, coming through with a big hit," Holliday said. "You see it every year. It’s someone who maybe wasn’t even with the team at the start of the year or someone else who isn’t heralded – they come up huge."