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After thrilling Division Series, more surprises await

Whatever happens in the days and weeks ahead, this much is known: The 2012 Division Series have set up the road to the World Series like never before.

Down to the last strike in the ninth inning of the last nail-biting contest, this was a 20-game odyssey through unparalleled resilience and utter despair, danger at every turn, hope around every corner. Through it all, a postseason journey that began with the first won-and-done Wild Card entry games became a thrill ride of a lifetime, culminating for the first time with a 4-for-4 showing of Game 5 drama.

Once the Cardinals completed a comeback of historic proportions at Nationals Park to finish off Friday's do-or-die doubleheader, the first full round of baseball playoffs gave the rest of October something grand and glorious to shoot for -- a proverbial tough act to follow.

With St. Louis keeping its defense of its World Series title alive with an unprecedented rally in the nation's capital, a theme established over the last eight days wound up being the last word in a spectacular Division Series round.

"Every inning, the guys were just 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 first-year manager Mike Matheny said after St. Louis staged the largest comeback ever seen in an elimination game for a 9-7 victory on Friday.

Believe this: October will always surprise you. It'll take you to new heights, show you things you've never seen before. It will take your lunch money, too.

This October began with 10 teams for the first time, and once it was down to eight, it went down to the wire, time and time again.

And then there were four, and all four have been there before.

In the National League Championship Series, it's the Cardinals, the defending World Series champions with an NL-high 11 of those titles to their credit, and the Giants, two years removed from a World Series of their own, and a franchise whose history stretches from coast to coast.

In the American League Championship Series, it's the Tigers, the Olde English D making its second straight appearance in the ALCS, meeting the Yankees, the all-time leader in everything you can name related to the postseason.

Among these four survivors are the last three World Series champions -- Yankees '09, Giants '10 and Cardinals '11. Gracing all four of their rosters, hosts of this year's favorites and past recipients of individual awards. All four have the credentials to go all the way.

They're all invited to the party this weekend. The ALCS begins Saturday when the Yankees host the Tigers for Game 1 at 8 p.m. ET on TBS, while the NL teams go through a workout day in San Francisco. Game 1 of the NLCS, with the Cardinals meeting the Giants at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday on FOX, actually will follow Game 2 of the ALCS, slated for 4 p.m. ET that day.

It took 22 games to get here. Teams were facing elimination in 12 of them, and 13 of them were decided by two runs or fewer.

So it was only fitting that the Cardinals, who twice went down to their last strike before rallying for the 2011 World Series title, completed the job.

The way the Nationals jumped out with three first-inning runs and a cycle by the second inning, 19-year-old Bryce Harper leading the way with a triple and a homer, it looked like Washington was on the way to its first postseason series victory since the Expos won the 1981 NLDS.

But the Cardinals had won five consecutive elimination games heading into Game 5, and they made it six with as improbable a turnaround as any of them.

The Cards were down to the last strike again, but the Rangers know how that can work out. Yadier Molina and David Freese fought off that last strike for walks before Daniel Descalso scorched a worm-burner that bounced off shortstop Ian Desmond's glove into short center field, scoring two runs to tie it. One batter later came Pete Kozma's opposite-field single to set the final score.

Earlier, the ALDS in the Bronx became akin to the one in Oakland the day before, with an ace dealing the final hand.

Remarkably, the Orioles-Yankees series had seen scores either tied or one run apart for 46 of 47 innings before the Yankees opened up a three-run lead, thanks in part to a Nate McLouth foul ball that might have been a homer. But CC Sabathia was on the job like Detroit's Justin Verlander the night before with a series-clinching complete game in a 3-1 victory.

"It is what I am here for," Sabathia said afterward. "It is what I play the game for. I guess I should feel, you know, a little pressure or something like that, but I don't. I mean, I feel like that every time out."

After this historic first full round, a Bay Bridge World Series that could have happened, won't happen. And a Beltway World Series will have to wait, as well.

That said, the first Yankees-Giants matchup in the World Series since 1962 is still in play, as is a repeat of three World Series meetings between the Cardinals and Tigers, the last in 2006. The Yankees and Cardinals have met five times in the World Series before, while Giants-Tigers would be a first.

Ah, but if the Division Series taught us anything, it's not to get too far ahead of ourselves.

In the NLCS, it's two teams that stared at elimination and devoured it. In the ALCS, it's two favorites, who, after scrapping into a tense finale, finally sent a couple of underdogs into the offseason.

And the 2012 Division Series rounds have put the rest of October on notice that it's time to toss the script and make some magic.

Believe it.