The champs punch back

ST. LOUIS -- It was only the second inning. But already, the cold breeze of winter was slamming the St. Louis Cardinals between the eyebrows.

They'd already lost one home game in this National League Division Series that they couldn't afford to lose. So they didn't need to consult any of Tony La Russa's old October binders Monday to know they sure couldn't afford to lose another.

"I guess you could tell yourself that even if you lose, there's always another game," said Matt Holliday, after his team's season-saving, come-from-behind 12-4 Game 2 thumping of the Washington Nationals. "But if you want to advance, that's about as must-win as it gets."

In truth, though, the Cardinals had no idea how must-win a game this was. So we'll fill them in, now that the facts will no longer be a threat to their blood pressure:

In the history of best-of-five series played under this unfortunate 2-3 format, you know how many teams had ever lost Games 1 and 2 at home and come back to win their series? That would be zero. Zilch. None.

Luckily, not many folks in St. Louis knew that at the time. But nevertheless, by the middle of the second inning Monday afternoon, the "uh-ohs" and the "holy craps" were beginning to mount among the increasingly edgy occupants at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals had fallen behind early. Again. Their starting pitcher (Jaime Garcia) was about to head off for an appointment with an MRI tube. And the fate of their beautiful, we're-still-the-champions season was suddenly in serious but guarded condition.

But let us remind you one more time who these guys are. They're the champs. They're the kings of Been There, Done That, at times like this.

Last October, you may recall, they lost Game 1 of their NLDS against the Phillies, fell four runs behind Cliff Lee in Game 2 and then roared from behind to win that series. Next up, they got pounded by the Brewers, 9-6, in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, and then -- what else? -- stampeded from behind to win that series, too

So clearly, when they lost Game 1 of this series and then gave up an early run in Game 2, they had those Nationals right where they wanted them. Right?

Uh, wrong, said their sweet-swinging first baseman, Allen Craig.

"Obviously, we don't want to go out and lose the first game of every series," Craig said. "That's not a good tradition. But it is a good tradition to bounce back."

Yeah. Good point. And bouncing back, as we've seen, is this team's most tried and true act.

"I feel like what happened to us last year would help anybody, experiencewise, in the postseason," said longtime utility man Skip Schumaker. "Knowing that you're not out of it, knowing that there's a series to be played, and one game doesn't matter. Last year, we lost [Game 1 of the NLDS] to Doc Halladay, and we had Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels looking down at us in the next two, and then Halladay again. So that experience helps. No doubt about it."

But just when this team thought it had seen every scenario it could possibly come back from, the Cards ran into something Monday that never happened at any point last October -- an injury to a starting pitcher in the middle of a postseason game.

Now early exits by Cardinals starters -- that, they were used to. They managed to win seven postseason games last year in which their starting pitcher didn't make it through the fifth inning. And that was slightly, uh, unconventional. But it was also a product of their former manager's penchant for, shall we say, making his managerial presence felt.

What happened Monday, however, was a whole different deal. This time, they never saw it coming.

This time, they were running a pitcher out there who seemed to have recovered just fine from a left shoulder strain that forced him to the disabled list for 64 games between early June and mid-August.

Garcia was coming off a September in which he ran up a 2.45 ERA. He'd worked at least six innings in every start but one down the stretch. And as recently as last week, he said, he was feeling "the best I've felt in a long time."

But in a bullpen session last Friday, he noticed his shoulder never loosened up. He didn't say anything at the time, he said, because he thought it was just normal fatigue and stiffness.

"How many times does your shoulder feel 100 percent, with no stiffness, no pain, no fatigue?" he said, when pressed on why he'd never reported any trouble. "Probably never. So I just thought this was something like that ... You don't say something unless you feel like you can't go. And I felt like I'd be able to win this game."

But by the end of the second inning -- after giving up a run, walking three and slogging through 51 pitches just to get six outs -- he knew there was nothing normal about how he felt. So he came off the mound and reported he was hurting.

The worry was etched all over his face. But it wasn't just worry over the fate of his shoulder. It was worry about the fate of his team, which didn't need to see its starting pitcher heading for the MRI wing at a time like this.

"I was really concerned about myself and my shoulder, but at the same time, one of the reasons why I think I came out of the game was that this was a huge [game] for us," Garcia said. "And I just didn't want to do something where I was going to wait out there another two innings, and the situation could get a lot worse. So I ... had to say something."

And so he did -- throwing his dugout, bullpen and coaching staff into a state of minor chaos. But this is the Cardinals. So naturally, it turned out to be a state of chaos that worked out just fine -- for everyone and everything except Garcia's shoulder.

Out in the bullpen, Lance Lynn -- who had started to warm up in the top of the second inning -- was told, "Don't sit down. You're coming into the game."

Meanwhile, back in the dugout, Schumaker was minding his own business, watching a ballgame, when he was informed: "Better grab a bat. You're pinch hitting for Jaime."

"I usually have a pretty good idea about the whole pinch-hitting role, and I have a routine," he said. "But it was the second inning. So if I said I was prepared, I'd be lying to you. I scrambled, took my sweatshirt off, grabbed my bat, took a couple of swings and had to get up there. It was panicked. That's for sure."

But while all that panic was unfolding, his teammates were unfurling what might turn out to be their most important offensive eruption of 2012.

They kicked off the bottom of the second by mugging Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann for four straight hits. And suddenly, it was Cardinals 2, Nationals 1.

Then here came Schumaker. It was only the second time in postseason history that any team had pinch hit for its pitcher that early in a game -- when it had the lead. The other: Joe Torre sending up David Dellucci to hit for an injured David Wells in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series. But unlike the way that one turned out for the Yankees in 2003, this move couldn't have turned out better for the Cardinals.

Schumaker promptly scorched a ball into the shortstop hole. And even though the acrobatic Ian Desmond turned it into a Web Gem and an out, another run scored. Then Jon Jay slung the fifth hit of the inning into left field to make it 4-1. And that often-relentless Cardinals bullet train was roaring down the tracks.

"I think we just feed off each other," said Craig, one of five Cardinals who had multihit games. "You never know, with this team, what one base hit is going to do to get us started."

But just because the lineup's alarm had finally gone off didn't mean this team was out of the danger zone. The Cardinals did, after all, have 21 outs left to get -- and a starting pitcher who wasn't going to get any of them.

"You know it's not going to be easy," Schumaker said. "But we also knew we had an 18-game winner and an All-Star warming up. And we have extreme confidence in any role that Lance Lynn is going to be in."

For most of this year, Lynn's role was: dominating starter. But the return of Chris Carpenter in September changed all that in October. So off Lynn went to the bullpen, from whence he came.

Asked about what his reaction was when the Cardinals "asked" him to go back to the 'pen, Lynn chuckled: "There was no 'asking' about it. They let me know that's where I'd be pitching -- and I welcomed the chance."

In the Cardinals' two previous postseason games, Lynn was asked to get only one out. But in this game, they had other ideas -- as in: Get many, many, many outs.

It was a pivotal, pressure-packed situation. But afterward, Lynn didn't sound as if he was particularly terrified to face it.

"That's what I'm down there for," he said. "That's what motivates me -- to do things like that."

So he promptly stomped in and struck out five of the first nine hitters he faced. And even though the next two -- Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche -- launched back-to-back homers, the Cardinals had a six-run lead by that time. And the crisis had passed.

Just to make sure of that, though, Jay kicked off the sixth inning by making the October defensive play of the year (so far) -- splattering himself off the fence in left-center to rob Danny Espinosa of an extra-base hit.

"That," said Craig, "was the best catch I've ever seen -- from on the field."

Then Carlos Beltran launched 800 feet worth of home runs in his last two at-bats to put this thing away. And once again, in a pivotal Game 2 of another October series, the Cardinals had rescued themselves from the endangered-season list.

"It's not like we're scared to go on the road by any means," Schumaker said. "But Game 2 is a must-win. A must-win. I know some people might be sugarcoating it. But this was as must-win as it gets."