Cardinals still fighting

ST. LOUIS -- You just can't kill them. You just can't kill those St. Louis Cardinals.

They lost Adam Wainwright for the season before they'd played an inning. That couldn't kill them.

They were 10½ games out with 31 to play. That couldn't kill them.

Their bullpen saddled them with 13 crushing walk-off losses. And that couldn't do them in, either.

So here they are, still breathing, still playing. Of course they are. Here they are, heading for a dramatic Game 5 in Philadelphia on Friday night. Of course they are.

And here they are, after a season-saving, come-from-behind 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, still laughing at all the dopes from coast to coast who thought they were six feet under when, in fact, their fun was just beginning.

Asked Wednesday night, after Game 4 of this still-very-much-in-progress National League Division Series, how many times he estimated his team had been pronounced dead by the proper authorities, Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday reacted like a man who wasn't sure he could even count that high.

"Let's see," he said. "Probably every day in August. And several in September. And yesterday.

"Anddddddd," Holliday couldn't help but add, "today."

Yeah, couldn't possibly overlook "today," could he? Because the game they'd just finished winning was perfect fodder for those proper authorities. If the Cardinals' whole M.O. this season was to make sure nothing came easy, then Game 4 of this fabulous National League Division Series just fit right into the program.

After all, if you want to make people nervous, what better way than to fall behind by two runs -- after FIVE pitches -- in a game where losing meant sayonara? But little did the Phillies know the Cardinals clearly had them right where they wanted them.

"Hey, that's what we're here for -- entertainment purposes," laughed Lance Berkman, after the Cardinals had climbed out of the intensive-care ward one more time. "I've always said, whether you're really good or really bad, at least be entertaining, so people will talk about you one way or the other. So that's all we're trying to do here."

Well, we appreciate it. Let's make that clear -- because whoever it is who's writing this team's scripts, they've got a future working with Aaron Sorkin. So for entertainment purposes, the Cardinals had to make sure they didn't just get themselves two runs behind early to any old team or any old pitcher. No, they had to get themselves two runs behind against the official best team in baseball.

And they had to get themselves two runs behind against their longtime nemesis, Roy Oswalt -- a man with a 1.29 career postseason ERA in St. Louis, a man who had pulled the plug on their season once before (Game 6, 2005) in this very town, a man who had made 10 career postseason starts and taken a loss in none of them.

So the boos and the nervous fidgeting rattling through all 47,071 occupants of Busch Stadium was perfectly understandable. But obviously, these folks had simply forgotten the essential facts of their favorite team's 2011 life:

You just can't kill these Cardinals.

So Berkman doubled in a run in the bottom of the first, and it was 2-1. And David Freese, a guy who had struck out in seven of his first 13 at-bats in this series, doubled in two more in the fourth, and it was Cardinals 3, Phillies 2.

Then Freese essentially put this thing away by whomping a 424-foot two-run homer onto the grassy knoll in center in the sixth. And as the ballpark shook and Freese circled the bases, you could glimpse a Game 5 looming -- Chris Carpenter versus Roy Halladay -- just over the horizon.

But then, of course you could. After the ride the 2011 Cardinals have taken, how could this series have possibly ended any other way?

"It's going to be great," Berkman said. "Heck, yeah, you're going to be nervous. And yeah, you're going to have butteflies. But in terms of pressure, I mean, if we win, it's great, and if we get beat, we get beat. But our attitude has been, we have a good team. We're going to go out there and play as hard as we can. And if it's good enough, great. If not, we've got nothing to hang our head about.

"I mean, I'm proud of this team," Berkman went on. "I'm proud of the way we've fought. No matter what happens on Friday night, we've got nothing to be ashamed of."

Nor should they. The two games they've won in this series just encapsulate what they are and how they got here. In Game 2, they got four runs down to Cliff Lee -- and won. In this game, they fell two runs back against Roy Oswalt -- and won.

And if you've been watching closely, by now you should have noticed something important about this team:

It's no accident they're still breathing.

This isn't the 2010 Padres. This isn't some plucky little team of overachievers that just happened to hang around for all these months because the ball kept bouncing right. This is a team with big-time players -- Holliday and Berkman, Carpenter and some guy named Albert Pujols -- that has never stopped thinking it was good enough to be here.

"I mean, we won 90 games," Skip Schumaker said. "And 90 games is a lot of games to win in the big leagues. And that's with hit after hit that we took since spring training. So I think for us to be here, we felt like we deserved it. Of course, some things had to happen in September, but we really felt like this was where we should have been, from Day 1 in spring training."

Oh, they've gotten a few breaks. They've needed a few breaks. But now that they find themselves here, in a Hearns-Leonard/Ali-Frazier slug-out with the National League's heavyweight champs, the Cardinals have forced this Game 5 for one very basic reason:

Starting with the third inning of Game 2, they've been the best team on the field.

They may not have the biggest names or the most celebrated pitching staff. But if you've been paying attention to the quality of each team's at-bats, for instance, is there any question which lineup has applied the most pressure to which pitching staff? It's that Cardinals lineup, in a unanimous decision.

"One thing I've seen about these guys," Phillies reliever Brad Lidge said Wednesday, "is that they're putting a lot of good at-bats on us, they're seeing a lot of pitches and not missing mistakes. You've got to tip your hat to these guys right now. They're playing really good, and they're giving us a really good battle. It shows signs of a veteran team, a scrappy team, but also a good team. They don't give up, and they're very talented."

This is also a tough, tough group. Three months ago, Pujols fractured his wrist -- and was back in the lineup two weeks later. And just last weekend, Holliday was pretty sure he was done for the year. Then there he was in the five-hole, playing left field on Wednesday, in part because the pain in his throbbing tendon was only exceeded by the potential pain of watching his team play a win-or-else game without him.

Asked after this game if he was in a lot of pain, Holliday replied: "It depends on what you think 'a lot' is. I'm not going to say no. I'll just say it's good enough [to play]. And if I feel like it's good enough to go out there and play at a level where I feel like I could help this team, then I'm going to play."

So out there he went. And reached base twice. And scored twice -- in a game his team won by two runs.

But the loudest roars from the second-largest crowd in Busch Stadium history Wednesday weren't showered on Matt Holliday, happy as these people may have been to see him. This was a night when the biggest lovefest rained down on Sir Albert Pujols.

In the beginning, that was just because these people weren't sure if they were ever going to see this man again, hitting third in their town, wearing their uniform, reminding them of what a unique privilege they've had to watch him do his thing these past 11 years.

But by the sixth inning of this game, the Albert cheers had a whole different meaning -- because if this really was the last time they would ever watch him play baseball in this ballpark as a Cardinal, he would leave them with a memory of what a special player he really is.

He did that by making a play just about no one else in baseball would make -- or even think of making. And he would make it not with his bat, but with his right arm, the one that supposedly needed Tommy John surgery not so long ago, if you'll recall.

It was the top of the sixth inning. One-run lead. Chase Utley on first. No outs. And a full count on Hunter Pence. So Utley was running on the pitch as Pence bounced what looked like a routine ground ball to short. But this would soon become a play that was anything but routine.

Utley rounded second, watched Rafael Furcal bazooka the throw to first and kept right on sprinting toward third base. If anyone else on earth had been playing first, he would have made it, too.

But this was Albert Pujols playing first. So he stepped off the bag … and into the throw … and fired the baseball across the diamond … and shot down a shocked Chase Utley, for an inning-changing, potentially game-altering out at third base.

To Sir Albert, this was no big deal, apparently. It was "easy," he said, "because I have the play in front of me. So it was easy for me to see him going and take off."

But "easy" wouldn't have been the word his teammates used to describe this play. "Genius" was more like it.

"It takes such guts to do that," Schumaker said. "I mean, [most] first basemen don't do that. Let's be honest."

And if that play doesn't work -- if Pujols is slow to react or doesn't fire a strike across the infield -- "then it's first and third, no outs, and Ryan Howard coming up," Schumaker said. "And it changes the whole game. Remember, we're only up by one run.

"So that's a huge play in the game. That play could have been a huge momentum-turner for us, or for the other side. So I wouldn't have done it. I know that. And that's why he's a cut above normal.

"Look, there are a lot of very good first basemen out there," Skip Schumaker would go on. "Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira. Those guys are great. But I don't know if anyone else makes that play. Now I don't know them. I've never played with them. I'm not taking anything away from anybody else. But for a guy to come off the bag and make that play, it's just unbelievable."

But then, "unbelievable" is pretty much the perfect word to describe this whole team, and this whole season. Now isn't it? This is a group that should have been done weeks ago. But you just can't kill them.

So here they are, still chugging, with an epic Game 5 approaching. And those St. Louis Cardinals just can't wait.

"I've been dreaming about the World Series, not the Division Series," David Freese said. "So we've just gotta keep winning."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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