WASHINGTON -- They were knocked down in the first round, dropped again in the third round. But these guys are champions. They did what champions do.
They got up and kept swinging -- and lo and behold, there they were, standing and dancing in the middle of another wild clubhouse celebration when it was all over as a whole city wept and mourned.
Once again, the Wild Cards simply refused to die. Only this one, in some ways, was the most amazing of all of the Cardinals' comebacks -- even more remarkable than Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against Texas or any of the other five elimination games they've claimed these past two seasons.
It happened in an unfriendly ballpark, one out from extinction. It happened against a stacked Nationals team that had won more games than any team in the Majors and was poised to deliver the first postseason triumph since the franchise's move to Washington.
"I don't know," Cards third baseman David Freese said, shaking his head. "It's too soon to compare this with last year. The Nationals are a great ballclub. They came out blazing, on fire. It's 6-0 [after three innings], and we just fight back.
"You've got to embrace it. As hard as it is, you try to have fun. You know there's a lot riding on it, of course. But you look around, and for six months, you're this huge family. The Cardinals take pride in signing [players], not only talent-wise, but with character. I think these guys showed it tonight."
Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, the seventh and eighth hitters in a loaded St. Louis lineup, delivered the telling blows. Their matching two-run singles in the four-run ninth inning lifted the Cards to this stunning 9-7 Game 5 National League Division Series triumph and clinched a trip to San Francisco to engage the Giants in the NL Championship Series.
Cardinals in an ultimate game of a postseason round
The Redbirds kept chipping away, chirping away. Descalso was in the middle of it all. He doubled leading off the two-run fifth inning and homered leading off the eighth. The second baseman had the game of his life, but he was thinking only about "coming through for this ballclub, for these guys.
"We never give up. We keep fighting to the end," Descalso said. "That's October baseball."
The ninth began with Carlos Beltran's second double of the game and third hit of the night, a missile that carried over the head of the phenom in center field, Bryce Harper.
Drew Storen, the Nats' closer, retired Matt Holliday and struck out Allen Craig. Nationals Park was a madhouse. But then Yadier Molina, the team's most important player, walked. Freese walked. Storen was just missing corners, but he was missing. The Cards had the poise to take the free pass. This was no time to be a hero.
That was Descalso's destiny. With the bases loaded, he slashed the first pitch he saw off shortstop Ian Desmond's glove into shallow center, and suddenly it was 7-7. Now it was Kozma, the former first-round Draft pick the club had been so close to releasing this season, lining one into the right-field corner. The ballpark was as quiet as a library.
"We took some good at-bats," Molina said, "and that guy Descalso came through, and Kozma. The young guys came through for us. I'm so proud of this team. From the coaching staff to the medical staff to everybody in a uniform, we've got a bunch of good guys.
"I'm happy for Beltran, because he hasn't won a championship, but I'm happy for everybody here."
This, Freese said, was about Molina's leadership and Beltran's all-around brilliance and the young guys coming out of the bullpen throwing bullets. It was about all the elements that go into making this team so special.
"Yadi, he's the MVP in my book," Freese said. "You're around that guy for six months, the leadership he brings sitting behind the plate, the way he's progressed as a hitter. He's a guy you build a team around.
"Carlos Beltran is one of the best teammates I've ever been around. He deserves a ring. When you get one, you want another one."
Beltran was close with the 2006 Mets, only to be denied by the Cardinals in a classic NLCS. He struck out against Adam Wainwright to end Game 7 of that dramatic series, and now here Beltran was six years later, bailing out Wainwright on a night he got rocked for the first time in a career of superb postseason outings.
St. Louis would not be on its way to San Francisco without Beltran's contributions. He had a perfect night at the plate -- two walks to go with the three hits -- and finished the series with a .444 average, coming off 32 homers and 97 RBIs in the regular season.
"Tonight, I was thinking about the way the Cardinals came back last year," Beltran said, "and here I am, and we're doing it again. This is a great feeling, being on this team. This is why I came here -- to win."
The Cards brought Beltran in as a free agent after Albert Pujols elected to relocate to Southern California, with the Angels. Beltran and Craig repeatedly delivered in the clutch and compensated for the loss not only of Pujols, but of Lance Berkman for most of the season.
"We lose Albert, Lance is out the whole year, but we still know how to win," Molina said. "That tells you how good we are. We've got some great players here, guys who won't quit."
The manager, Mike Matheny, stood in a corner as the players acted like frat brothers, spraying beverages all over one another and shouting and screaming in that familiar post-triumph ritual.
Matheny replaced a legend, Tony La Russa, and has managed with a calm resolve that has made believers of everyone around him.
"It's not that they believe they can -- they know they can," Matheny said. "These guys just keep pushing. They believed in each other, believed in themselves."
The Nationals took their best shots. They knocked the champs down, but they couldn't put them away.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.