By Ryan Witt
Last night the St. Louis Cardinals came back from 0-6 deficit to defeat the Washington Nationals 9-7 in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. The comeback is the biggest in the history of postseason elimination games, and adds to the Cardinals reputation for drama that was built in the 2011 World Series.
While the stage was not quite as big, in many ways the Cardinals victory last night was even more stunning. As the Nationals held a six run lead heading into the top of the fourth inning, the odds were against the Cardinals in so many ways. Here are five overwhelming facts about the Cardinals’ historic comeback win.
#1: The Cardinals came back against Gio Gonzalez, the man rated as the top five best Cy Young candidate in the National League. As the Cardinals trailed by six in the fourth inning, they were facing a pitcher who, on average, gave up less than three runs per nine innings over the regular season. In addition, Gonzalez was pitching at home where he has a better ERA (2.38) than he does on the road (3.31). Gonzalez also came into the postseason hot with a 1.74 ERA in September and October of the regular season. In other words, the Cardinals did not just come back, they came back against one of the best starters in the league in his ballpark.
#2: To keep the game close the Cardinals relied on pitchers who were not even part of their staff at the beginning of the season. The Nationals offense, which scored the fifth most runs in the National League and had just finished putting up six runs on Adam Wainwright, proceeded to be shut down by Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal began the year at AA, and Kelly began the year at AAA considered the Cardinals forth best pitching prospect (if that) at the beginning of the year. The two men combined for 2.2 IP of no-hit baseball while striking out four batters.
#3: The heroes of the game were also unlikely picks. Daniel Descalso was 3-for-5 with a double, home run, and the key single to tie the game in the ninth inning. Descalso began the year on the bench behind Tyler Greene at second base. When Greene faltered the Cardinals first relied on Skip Schumaker at second base, not Descalso. It was not until the last month of the season that Descalso was regularly starting at second base. Overall Descalso had a very disappointing offensive year, hitting just .227 with a .303 OBP and a .324 SLUG. Descalso had four homeruns over 143 games in the regular season. Descalso hit two homeruns in five games in the NLDS and might have hit another if not for an excellent catch by Jayson Werth over the wall. Descalso, not Matt Holliday or Allen Craig or even David Freese, was the number one offensive force behind the Cardinals comeback.
#4: Behind Descalso was Pete Kozma, who had the key three-run home run in Game 3 and followed with the game winning two RBI single in the ninth inning last night. Kozma is an even more unlikely hero than Descalso. At the beginning of this year Kozma was largely considered a lost prospect within the Cardinals’ minor league system. After being drafted in the first round in 2007, Kozma had slowly inched his way up the minors while he exhibited a bad combination of low OBP and no power. This year in AAA Kozma had a .232 AVG, a .292 OBP, a .355 SLUG. When the Cardinals called Kozma up it was more out of desperation than anything after Rafael Furcal went down with an arm injury. Kozma would go on to show unprecedented contact and power hitting ability in September. Last night, Kozma, who spent most of the year struggling at AAA, delivered a crucial single against one of the best Major League closers all year in Drew Storen.
#5: After Gio Gonzalez was removed from the game the Cardinals came back against a Nationals bullpen that ranks seventh in the Major Leagues in ERA (3.23). The Cardinals scored one run on Tyler Clippard (3.72 ERA, 32 Saves in the regular season) and four runs on Drew Storen (2.37 ERA and 4 Saves in the regular season). All of this, and more, made the Cardinals victory more than improbable, but certainly not impossible as seen last night.
Ryan Witt is a freelance writer covering all things St. Louis Cardinals. His work can be found on Examiner.com.