By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The St. Louis Cardinals erased a six-run deficit and scored four runs in the ninth inning to stun the Washington Nationals 9-7 on Friday and advance to the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants.
Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma each had two-out, two-run singles in the ninth for the Cardinals to silence the record Nationals Park crowd of 45,966 and win the best-of-five N.L. Division Series 3-2.
Washington, in the playoffs for just the second time in the franchise's 44-year history, cruised to a 6-0 lead after three innings but could not close the door on the Cardinals.
On five separate pitches, the Cardinals were down to their last strike but managed to come through.
"Every inning the guys were constantly talking about, 'Hey, we are going to do something special here.' And it wasn't just a bunch of cheerleading. They believed it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told reporters.
Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse each had home runs and two runs batted in by the third inning for the Nationals, who had baseball's best record in the regular season.
But the Cardinals chipped away at the deficit and pulled to within 6-5 on a Descalso homer to right in the eighth inning.
An RBI single by Kurt Suzuki in the bottom half of the inning gave the Nationals what seemed like a comfortable 7-5 lead for closer Drew Storen.
But Storen gave up three hits and two walks in the ninth and when Kozma lined a two-run single to right to score Descalso and David Freese and give St. Louis a 9-7 lead, the once-raucous crowd turned eerily silent.
Jason Motte shut down the Nationals in order in the ninth and when Zimmerman popped out to Descalso at second to end the game, the Cardinals met at the mound to mob each other.
Washington fans, in a party mood all evening, quietly turned toward the exits wondering what went wrong.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he told his team the heartbreaking loss was "nothing to hang your head about."
"It was a great year," he told reporters. "We overcame a lot of problems. We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson, learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther."
St. Louis will travel to San Francisco for the first game of the best-of-seven NLCS on Sunday.
The Cardinals were down to their last strike in the World Series last year against the Texas Rangers but managed to come back and win the title.
St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina said that experience "definitely helped" the Cardinals' mindset.
"We've got confidence in ourselves," he said. "We never quit. That's rule. We can be down 7-0, 8-0, we're going to play hard."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury/Patrick Johnston)