SAN FRANCISCO — As many times as he gets asked, Cardinals closer Jason Motte still has no perfect answer for how St. Louis found a way to win at Washington after trailing 6-0 and get back to the NL championship series.
"These guys just prove what big hearts they have and how much they go out there and work their butts off," said Motte, Friday night’s winning pitcher. "Someone asked me last night how we keep doing it, and I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe we’re just stubborn. We just don’t give up.’ That’s kind of how you have to be."
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny will watch the game again, once things slow down, so he can truly appreciate just what his Cardinals accomplished in beating the Nationals — the team with baseball’s best record this season.
San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy doesn’t need another look to know how impressive the reigning World Series champions’ ninth-inning comeback was for a 9-7 victory in the nation’s capital.
Bochy’s team had its own remarkable rally that’s not quite as fresh as the Cardinals’ feat: Three road wins at Cincinnati to advance after dropping the first two games of the division series at home to the Reds.
The last two World Series winners sure are showing their championship mettle in mid-October.
They will face off in Game 1 of the NLCS on Sunday night at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner gets the ball for the Giants at home against 6-foot-5 right-hander Lance Lynn.
Bumgarner, a 16-game winner this year, lost Game 2 of the NL division series here to Cincinnati.
"I felt good last time, things just didn’t go my way," Bumgarner said. "That’s the way this game is."
While the Giants became the eighth team to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series and first to do it on the road, the Cardinals earned the biggest comeback ever in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to STATS LLC.
"It really hasn’t sunk in," Matheny said after an all-night, cross-country trip to the Bay Area. "I see a knockdown-drag out ahead of us. I’m certain Major League Baseball has to be very pleased with the caliber of baseball that’s happened so far in this postseason. And I don’t see any reason why the excitement wouldn’t continue. We’re looking at two well-rounded teams."
Daniel Descalso hit a tying, two-out single, and Pete Kozma added a go-ahead, two-run single to lead the Cardinals’ rally.
The Giants, all the while, waited out the game on their team plane still parked on the tarmac in Cincinnati. Players gathered around iPads to watch the improbable comeback by a Cardinals club managed by former Giants catcher, Matheny.
The Cardinals have won all six of their games when facing elimination the past two years, down to their final strike not once but twice against the Texas Rangers in last year’s World Series before prevailing.
This time, they did it against the team with 98 wins.
"I don’t why we do it. We love the dramatics. I’d like us to not keep waiting until the last strike," pitcher Kyle Lohse said, "because that’s too much for my heart to handle."
The Giants barely beat St. Louis to San Francisco after getting delayed more than three hours as their plane refueled and dealt with mechanical problems.
Initially, the plane had enough fuel to take the NL West winners to Washington. Instead, the Giants got to come home. They landed at 5:09 a.m.
"Everyone was rooting and cheering for the Cardinals because we wanted to go home," third baseman Pablo Sandoval said. "I was cheering for St. Louis. I was excited to be back home. Probably almost everybody was cheering for the Cardinals. Every guy was happy to be home. Once we were in the air, I slept the whole flight."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi fell asleep before the NL clincher ended. The Cardinals were trailing 7-5 the last thing he remembered. His television was still on, and when he opened his eyes at one point he saw the final score.
"I said, ‘What happened?’" he said. "I looked at it, the game was over and I closed my eyes and went back to bed. Pretty amazing. You think about the games, and you are down 6-0 and you’re able to come back. And you keep going at it. This first round was probably as good as it gets. Probably as good of baseball as we have seen when you talk about eight teams playing."
Road weary and riding high, the Cardinals and Giants are counting on more close games and playing all 27 outs — or more.
"It’s definitely a fun matchup," said Giants catcher Buster Posey, whose grand slam helped seal Game 5 against the Reds. "These should be some fun games to watch. Both teams have good arms, good offenses. And the resiliency of both teams is the strength of both teams."