Now it's real. What if has become what now. The Cards have been forced into yet another postseason winner-take-all situation. They lived to tell about it four times last season, including coming from behind twice when they were down to their last strike in Game 6 of the World Series against the Rangers. The Cardinals did it again a week ago, going on the road to eliminate the Braves in the National League Wild Card game.
The Redbirds have been there, done that. So they know that they have what it takes to beat the Nats on Friday night (7:30 p.m CT on TBS) at Nationals Park in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series.
What's interesting is that, almost to a man, the Cards say that having been in that crucible time and again can be an advantage over a Nationals club that has considerably less big-game experience.
|10/5/2012||NLWC 1||Atl.||6-3 W|
|10/28/2011||WS 7||Tex||6-2 W|
|10/7/2011||NLDS 5||Phi.||1-0 W|
|10/19/2006||NLCS 7||NYM||3-1 W|
|10/21/2004||NLCS 7||Hou.||5-2 W|
|10/14/2001||NLDS 5||Ari.||2-1 L|
|10/17/1996||NLCS 7||Atl.||15-0 L|
|10/25/1987||WS 7||Min.||4-2 L|
|10/14/1987||NLCS 7||S.F.||6-0 W|
|10/27/1985||WS 7||K.C.||11-0 L|
|10/20/1982||WS 7||Mil.||6-3 W|
|10/10/1968||WS 7||Det.||4-1 L|
|10/12/1967||WS 7||Bos.||7-2 W|
|10/15/1964||WS 7||NYY||7-5 W|
|10/15/1946||WS 7||Bos.||4-3 W|
|10/9/1934||WS 7||Det.||11-0 W|
|10/10/1931||WS 7||Phi.||4-2 W|
|10/10/1926||WS 7||NYY||3-2 W|
But they also understand that just because something has happened before -- even five times before -- doesn't mean it will happen again. There's a real understanding that they have to go out and play well, that in this case there's no guarantee that past will be prologue.
Third baseman David Freese, who made his bones with a terrific postseason last October, talked about the on-one-hand-but-on-the-other perspective St. Louis must keep.
"We have a team, largely this whole group of core guys, who have had their backs put against the wall numerous times and always responded well," Freese said. "So in that sense, I would say that experience helps.
"But at the same time, we have a very professional group of guys who show up to play every day. So [we know] it doesn't matter what happened before."
First baseman Allen Craig agreed with the premise that Friday night will be the real test of how significant postseason experience will be.
"When you speak of experience, obviously, it helps. But this is a new year and we're going to have to find another way to do it," Craig said. "We can't always rely on what we did last year. There's definitely some things we can look back on that will help, but Friday is a new day and we have to get it done then."
Carlos Beltran is new to the Cardinals this season, but he has tuned in to their approach to these situations.
"It's going to be the biggest game of the season for them, and for us," Beltran said. "They have their best pitcher [Gio Gonzalez]. We have Adam Wainwright, who has a lot of experience in these types of situations. So we feel confident."
Said Wainwright: "Sometimes experience helps, and sometimes it doesn't. I think in my case, I can look at big moments I've been in before and build off that -- dig deep and think about moments I've been in before. But you know what? If you get caught up too much in thinking about the past, you're not in the now enough. So I'll be ready."
After Thursday night's walk-off loss to the Nats, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse was asked about the fact that the Cards have found themselves in tougher positions in the past. He shrugged.
"Obviously there's a sense of urgency," Lohse said. "We've done a good job of bouncing back all year. Hopefully, [Friday] will be another one of those."
The balance that the Cardinals are striving for is having the confidence that experience will help them, but not to take for granted that they'll win just because they've done it before. Which helps explain manager Mike Matheny's reaction when asked even before the game what makes his club so good in the postseason.
"I think that would be a very bold statement to make," Matheny cautioned. "We don't really classify ourselves as one thing or another. What I would like to say about our team is that we've shown a lot of heart this year. I'd say, also, they don't quit, and it's hard to beat a team that doesn't quit. Those are things that they have done.
"Now, what does it take to be successful? I don't have the most experience as a manager in the postseason. So I can't tell you. But what I've seen so far is a very consistent group of guys who go about their business the same way every day, regardless if it's October or whether it's April.
"To me, that is fun to be around, and it gives yourself a chance to compete every night regardless of what the situation is."
And that's the attitude the Cards will try to bring into their latest cliff-hanger Friday night.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.