By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - In the end, it made sense that Yadier Molina and David Freese would work those key walks, and that Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma would come through with those tying and go-ahead, two-run hits.
The names might change. Not the outcomes. This is what the St. Louis Cardinals do.
Pushed to the brink, they never blink.
Trailing by three runs before they recorded an out Friday night, then six before the third inning was over, and still behind when down to their last strike over and over again with two outs in the ninth inning, the defending World Series champions fashioned the sort of comeback they've made their specialty.
Waiting until after midnight to finally take the lead, the never-give-up Cardinals erased the biggest deficit ever overcome in a winner-take-all postseason contest and beat the Washington Nationals 9-7 in Game 5 of the NL division series.
"How did that happen?!" Carlos Beltran asked, speaking to no one in particular in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park.
Not long before that, a blue bin stuffed with ice and beer cans had been hurriedly wheeled from the Nationals' side of the stadium to the Cardinals' room. Yes, the Cardinals turn losses into wins _ and then they steal the other guys' bubbly, too.
"We never quit," Molina said. "That's our rule."
According to STATS LLC, no other club in this sort of ultimate pressure situation had come back from more than four runs down. But being behind 3-0, 6-0, 7-5 _ none of that fazes these Cardinals. Over the past two years, they have won six postseason games in a row in which a defeat would have ended their season.
"We knew we had a lot of game left after they scored six. Nobody went up there trying to hit a six-run homer," said No. 7 hitter Descalso, whose solo shot in the eighth made it 6-5. "We needed to scratch and claw and get ourselves back in the game."
That run of recent must-have victories for St. Louis includes the wild-card playoff game at Atlanta last weekend, and Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas. Last year, too, St. Louis was a strike away from being done.
"It's just the kind of people they are. They believe in themselves. They believe in each other," first-year manager Mike Matheny said. "It's been this style of team all season long. They just don't quit, and I think that just says a lot about their character."
His wild-card Cardinals, who only secured a playoff spot on the next-to-last day of the regular season, will open the NL championship series against the Giants in San Francisco on Sunday. Lance Lynn, used in relief against Washington, will go back to the rotation and start Game 1.
Madison Bumgarner will pitch Sunday for the Giants, who dropped the first two games of their NLDS against Cincinnati before taking Game 5 on Thursday.
The Nationals led the majors with 98 regular-season wins, and made it an even 100 in the NLDS, but their run ended without All-Star ace Stephen Strasburg. The team said he'd thrown enough in his first full season after Tommy John surgery and didn't put him on the playoff roster.
"I stand by my decision, and we'll take the criticism as it comes," general manager Mike Rizzo said, "but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did."
Even without Strasburg, Washington had its chances to knock off the Cardinals. Oh, were there chances. For a total of five pitches, closer Drew Storen was one strike away from ending the game. But on all five, the batters _ first Molina, then 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP Freese _ took a pitch that was called a ball.
Both walked, setting the stage for Descalso and Kozma.
"We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing I'll say is that I just let these guys down," Storen said in a quiet Nationals clubhouse, where plastic sheets meant to protect belongings from spraying champagne were rolled up above players' lockers, unneeded. "There's a bad taste in my mouth and that's going to stay there for a couple of months. It's probably never going to leave."
That's thanks to the resilience of the Cardinals, who came through the way they tend to, if only barely: Descalso, who hit .227 in the regular season, came up with a game-saving single that ticked off the glove of diving shortstop Ian Desmond to make it 7-all.