WASHINGTON -- Welcome to Friday Night Lights, D.C. style.
It will be the defending World Series champion Cardinals colliding with the National League East champion Nationals at dazzling, pulsating Nationals Park, which rocked as Jayson Werth's ninth-inning homer decided Game 4 of the NL Division Series, 2-1, on Thursday night.
Friday night's (7:30 p.m. CT, TBS) winner moves on to face the Giants in the NL Championship Series. The other side scatters to every part of this land and others, a long season over abruptly, too soon.
When you've played as many elimination games as the Cards have these past two seasons -- six and counting -- you naturally develop a few ideas about the right approach to take.
Cardinals in do-or-die postseason games
"There's no reason to hold anything back now," said Kyle Lohse, who held the Nats to two hits and one run on Adam LaRoche's homer in seven superb innings in Game 4. "I expect our guys to come in [Friday night] the way they have all year, with confidence."
The Cardinals already have taken one elimination game, dispatching the Braves in Atlanta in the debut of the Wild Card playoff. They will have to do it again on foreign turf, muffling another boisterous home crowd.
Game 5 of this NLDS is the latest challenge to the collective resolve of the Redbirds.
"I wish we could have won tonight, but it's every pitcher's dream -- every competitor's dream," Adam Wainwright, the Cards' Game 5 starter, said.
St. Louis claimed five elimination games last season -- winning on the final day of the season to snatch the Wild Card from Atlanta, then taking two against the Phillies in the NLDS and two more in the thrilling Fall Classic against the Rangers.
This elimination-game sensation is something relatively new to the Nationals, who have been lifted to new heights by manager Davey Johnson and his eclectic cast of characters.
Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran has experienced the sting of losing an elimination game with the Mets, taking a third strike from Wainwright to touch off a St. Louis celebration in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS at Shea Stadium.
"As players, this is a good situation for everybody," said Beltran, whose third-inning sacrifice fly delivered the Cards' only run of Game 4. "This is an opportunity you want, to find a way to win and move on to the next series.
"I wish we could have won tonight, but it's every pitcher's dream -- every competitor's dream."
-- Adam Wainwright
"It's good for us, and it's good for baseball. It's going to be exciting. You have to take advantage of any advantage you can get. Sometimes it's the little things that win ballgames like this."
It was a big fly over the wall in left field by Werth, ending a 13-pitch duel with Lance Lynn, that decided Game 4. This was Werth's 14th postseason home run, the former Phils star showing his younger teammates how it's done.
In a show of power, the Cardinals usually like their chances. They're slugging .450 in this series compared to .323 by the Nats, who are alive and kicking even though they've been outscored by 14 runs.
After piling up 20 runs in Games 2 and 3, the Cards couldn't sustain any offense against lefty Ross Detwiler and three power arms out of the Washington bullpen.
"Offense is contagious," said Beltran, who has homered 13 times in 27 postseason games as St. Louis' answer to Werth. "A guy gets a double, and you want to do something positive, too. There have been days when we've been shut down, like today. But we can score runs."
Allen Craig, the Cardinals' first baseman and cleanup man, had two of his team's three hits in Game 4 and is batting .400 for the series. He has his own way of looking at these big games.
"It's good for us, and it's good for baseball. It's going to be exciting."
-- Carlos Beltran
"Somebody's going to win it," Craig said. "That team is going to be the one that attacks the game and has fun with it."
In other words, strip away all the externals and try to summon the joy and abandon you'd bring to a Sunday sandlot game with your buddies.
It just happens that millions of people will be watching, and two nations of fans will be living and dying with every pitch by Wainwright, the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez and the band of relievers who will likely follow them to the mound.
"This is the third time we've faced him the past couple months," Craig said of Gonzalez, the 21-game winner who fought his control (seven walks across five innings) in Game 1 in St. Louis, a 3-2 Nationals victory. "Any time you've faced a guy before, it helps.
"The key to the game is going to be in-game adjustments. You see what he's doing, what he's throwing, and you adjust."
In Wainwright, the Cardinals have a second tower of strength to lean on, a twin to Game 3 winner Chris Carpenter.
Wainwright, who could only observe the 2011 championship run while recovering from Tommy John surgery, has a 0.77 postseason ERA in 11 appearances. He held the Nats to one run in 5 2/3 innings in Game 1, striking out 10.
"He's got experience in these big games," Beltran said, not needing to recall a certain 0-2 curveball in 2006. "We have a lot of confidence in him. But I'm sure they feel the same way about Gio Gonzalez. You have to be good to win 21 games."
Framing these elimination games as opportunities to do something memorable, not as pressure-filled burdens, is the byproduct of the Cards' recent history.
"Any experience you have helps," Craig said. "We've played a number of these games where either you win or your season is over. It does help. But obviously, there are always new factors coming into play."
Here they are again, laying all their cards on the table.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.