Sooner or later, something had to give. Both teams in this year's National League Championship Series - the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants - faced nearly insurmountable odds when they survived the first round of the postseason - the best of five-game-NLDS - in historic fashion. In the end, it was the resilient Giants overcoming a three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to a Cardinals team that simply seemed to run out of gas over those last three agonizing games.
San Francisco's stunning first round three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark just goes to show that simply because it's "never been done before", doesn't mean it will never happen. No team had ever lost the first two games at home in a divisional series, then go on to win the next three on the road; but it happened. The Reds had never lost three straight games at home all season; but it happened - in the postseason.
Meanwhile, as the giddy-but-weary Giants were patiently waiting at the airport to determine whether they would be going all the way home to take on the Cardinals in the second round of the playoffs, or make the quick jaunt to Washington DC to take on the Nationals; it seemed to be a slam-dunk that they would be heading to our nation's Capitol. Early scoring updates indicated a rout was in the making: 6-0 after three-innings, with the home team comfortably ahead of an apparently overwhelmed Redbirds team.
In postseason history, no team had ever trailed by five or more runs in an elimination game to go on and win the game. Suddenly, the lead was cut in half: 6-3. As the Redbirds clawed back to make the score 6-5 in the top of the eighth-inning, the Nats answered back with a run of their own: 7-5 heading into the ninth-inning.
As the stunned patrons at National's Park witnessed the unprecedented Redbirds rally, which saw the Wild Cards on their usual brink of elimination on several different occasions, new heroes emerged for St Louis - Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma - who drove in the tying and winning runs, respectively.
Final score: Wild Cards 9 - Nats 7. Cardinal Nation was delirious; the rest of the nation either in awe or bitter dismay, depending on the locale and the opinion of adding that second Wild Card to begin with. The St Louis Wild Cards had already drawn the wrath of every Atlanta Braves fan on earth by having the audacity to beat another ("superior") Wild Card team with a better won-loss record; aided by a questionable call by an umpire, but more importantly, aided by Atlanta's own fielding miscues, led by retiring folk-hero Chipper Jones' throwing error on what should have been an easy double play. Hey, that's not the Wild Cards' fault; don't be mad at them!
The Cardinals had not only escaped that first elimination game in a hostile environment, facing a pitcher who was considered "unbeatable", they ultimately escaped what seemed to be certain elimination in that epic Game Five NLDS shocker over the Nationals.
With the adreniline flowing all the way to San Francisco, the Redbirds put up a quick six spot of their own in Game One of the NLCS against the Giants, and held on to win, 6-4. Clearly, the Giants were as undaunted by a six-run deficit as the Cardinals were; however, the St Louis bullpen did what the Washington bullpen failed to do: Preserve the lead.
After the Giants came back to easily win Game Two, it almost seemed a foregone conclusion this series would probably go six or seven games. The Cardinals headed home, at least somewhat satisfied with splitting the two games at AT&T Park; no easy feat. Yet, barring a sweep of the next three games at Busch Stadium, they would have to endure another trip to the City by the Bay.
However, after the Cardinals won the first two games at the friendly confines of Busch Stadium, to take a that commanding three games to one lead with one more to be played at home, it was obvious that winning Game Five became Priority Number One for St Louis. After the easy 8-3 win in Game Four, it seemed as though all the pundits were proclaiming the Wild Cards National League Champions. The post-game interviews with some of the players seemed a bit too giddy; almost as if it was a foregone conclusion the Giants would roll over and go home after losing Game Five. David Freese inadvertently gave a little sound bite which I'm sure was used to motivate the West division champions:
"San Francisco's a beautiful city, but we don't want to go back there. We want to win it here, tomorrow!"
Of course he wanted to wrap things up at home; Freese was just being honest. Naturally, this sentiment was probably shared by everyone on the team. Of course, the national media repeatedly mentioned this whenever possible; by the time of the revolting loss in Game Five, the Cards were being depicted as a team backpedaling now; no longer brash and confident; now reluctant and unsure of its abilities and unsure of what lies ahead in the hostile environment of AT&T Park.
By the time Game Seven rolled around, I tried to kid myself into believing the Cardinals could win at will; that they always play their best when the stakes are highest. I tried to kid myself into thinking the Giants could never win a Game Seven, simply because they never had in their long history; as if that mattered what would happen in 2012.
I had never been so unsettled prior to a Game Seven since the 1985 World Series. Game Six had been a disaster for Whitey Herzog's squad; jump-started by a bad call at first base by umpire Don Denkinger.
Cleary, St Louis didn't want to play that last game in Kansas City, and the proof is in the 11-0 final score.
Game Seven of the 2012 NLCS had a similar outcome for the Redbirds: 9-0. A season that had been pretty good; perhaps a bit inconsistent, but at least good enough to grab that new second Wild Card the Commissioner was kind enough to add; suddenly ended in sloppy and fundamentally unsound baseball; a sad way to end an exciting season.
Going into the postseason, I felt this team was much better than most people gave them credit for; saber-metrically they were the third best team in baseball, trailing only Washington and the New York Yankees. Of course, the impressive "run differential" the Cardinals finished the regular season with doesn't automatically translate into wins and losses. But it does reflect a team with a lot of talent; especially from a hitting perspective.
In the end, the Cardinals added a fourth postseason epic failure - blowing a MLB-record three games to one lead - to the previous MLB-record-breaking list: 1968 World Series vs the Detroit Tigers; 1985 World Series vs the Kansas City Royals; and 1996 NLCS vs the Atlanta Braves. It's ironic that Tony LaRussa's first year in St Louis was in 1996; and Mike Matheny's first year as the Cardinals manager ended up in the same fashion as the legend he replaced. Oh well; that's pretty good company.
On a positive note, 2012 was the first season since the advent of divisional play that St Louis managed to return to the postseason after winning the World Series the previous year; of course, they only had two shots at it - in 1983 and 2007 - but really didn't come close. Only two other World Championship St Louis Cardinals teams made it to the Fall Classic the following season - 1942 and 1967. The franchise has never won back-to-back World Championships, although they came painfully close in 1968; but we already know that.
Although winning that 12th World Series (12 in '13?) will have to wait at least one more year, Mike Matheny's resilient bunch made a good run at it, giving Cardinals' fans another dream to hold onto for an extended postseason run. Still, I have to wonder what happened to the team that stormed into San Francisco, fresh off that wild and wonderful conquest of the Nationals, to take Game One so decisively?
The team that showed up for Games Six and Seven, simply didn't "show up". The words of David Freese still echo in my head: "We don't want to go back to San Francisco."
What should Freese have said instead of the truth? Maybe something like this:
"Sure, it's nice to get the win tonight, but we've got our work cut out for us to get that next one. The Giants are a great team, and you know they're not just going to roll over for us tomorrow. Look what they did to the Reds. Won three straight in Cincinnati after losing the first two at home! That shows a lot of character. You know, those guys are a lot like us; neither team gives up. That's why they're here instead of Cincinnati.
Sure, we'd like to come out on top tomorrow and end it right away; but if we worry about trying "not to lose" the game, we'll never win it. So, we'll come out and play hard and so will they; we'll see what happens. Hey, if we have to go back to San Francisco, so be it. I know I speak for every guy on this team when I say we'd gladly travel to China to finish this thing off. We don't care; we just play hard, every inning of every game. May the best team win. There's nothing more we want in this world than another shot at the World Series. Once you've got that first ring; that first trophy; you want to keep that winning tradition going - for the fans, for ownership, for Carlos Beltran. He's like the greatest postseason player ever. If he doesn't deserve a World Series ring, nobody does!"
Would that approach to the challenge of winning that fourth NLCS game changed anything? Probably not. But it wouldn't have hurt. All I know is, the Cardinals didn't play those games in San Francisco like they had any business being on the field. I'm sure the Giants could sense their vulnerability; they did what good teams do in situations like that: They took it to them, and punched their own ticket to the World Series.