ST. LOUIS — In the hours before Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, David Freese — who spent last October fighting off the final strike of the St. Louis Cardinals’ season, and this October doing it once more — considered the qualities that make his franchise successful.
The Cardinals are in the postseason for the ninth time in 13 years. They are seeking their fourth pennant in that time. Despite a shutout loss to the San Francisco Giants on Friday night, they still hold a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“You learn to win,” Freese said of the Cardinals’ developmental philosophy.
Hours later, in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, music pumped through the speakers. Marco Scutaro, the Giants’ second baseman, sat in front of his locker, hunched over, and considered the qualities of the players around him.
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“We’re a team that will never give up,” Scutaro said. “We were fighting. We’ve been in this situation before.”
While the Detroit Tigers steamrolled the New York Yankees and will spend the weekend waiting for the World Series to start, the NLCS trudges forward to today’s Game 6 because it features the National League’s two most resilient teams. By Monday night, either the Cardinals or the Giants will be eliminated. But at this point, each is a cockroach that can’t be crushed, even when cornered by the biggest boot.
The Cardinals, who send postseason maestro Chris Carpenter to the mound tonight, might well earn a second straight pennant, and if they do, much credit will be given to the way they develop players — not just their baseball skills, but their focus on winning. The Giants, who counter with Ryan Vogelsong and — if they win today — ace Matt Cain in Game 7, could well come back, and if they do, they will be credited with an uncommon will.
They already faced a 2-0 deficit against the Cincinnati Reds in the division series and had to stave off the Cardinals in Busch Stadium in Game 5. A second pennant in three years would mean a 6-0 record in games in which they faced elimination.
“I think it’s perseverance through the whole season is where we draw the confidence that it’s not over until the last out is made,” Vogelsong said late Friday.
Start, then, with the Giants, because they could be sent home today, they could have been sent home Friday, they could have been sent home last week. They won the National League West and played host to the Reds in the first two games of the division series. They were outscored 14-2 in those games, and headed to Cincinnati for what seemed like a formality: the end of their season.
There, Vogelsong allowed one run in five innings of Game 3. They capitalized on a two-out error by Reds third baseman Scott Rolen in the 10th. They got five more scoreless innings from their bullpen. They survived with a 2-1 victory, then never trailed again in the series.
“When you can’t lose,” Vogelsong said, “I think we definitely do play a little bit harder.”
This, though, isn’t just about the postseason, Vogelsong said. In the clubhouse Friday night was Brian Wilson, the Giants’ goofball closer who had ligament replacement surgery in his elbow in April and appeared in just two games this season. Absent from the Giants, but still part of their success, was outfielder Melky Cabrera, who hit .346 and was an All-Star for San Francisco before he was banned for 50 games after testing positive for testosterone.
So playoff deficits are the culmination of the things the Giants have overcome.
“Everyone counted us out four or five times this year already,” Vogelsong said. “First when Wilson went down, people said we couldn’t do it. Then we lost Melky, unfortunately. People said we couldn’t do it.”
Now, who’s to say?
The Cardinals can also tick off a list of bumps they endured during the season, most notably the elbow injury that took out shortstop Rafael Furcal, the leadoff hitter on opening day, in late August.
“That’s just kind of how it is around here,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said. “If someone goes down, the next guy is supposed to go in there and do the job. We have every confidence that he will.”
In this series, both teams feel that way. The Tigers await. They will face a group of true survivors, regardless of who wins.