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LOUIS -- When the Cardinals arrive at Busch Stadium on Friday, it will be with the knowledge that they are one win away from returning to the World Series to defend their title.
The last team to clinch a National League playoff spot for the second year in a row, they are on the verge again of becoming the last NL team standing. Only Friday night's Game 5 of the NL Championship Series on FOX at 7 p.m. CT against the Giants remains between the Cards and a 2006 rematch against the American League champion Tigers in the World Series, which could begin in St. Louis on Wednesday night.
"First of all, we're not taking the last game to get into the World Series for granted," Matt Holliday said after the Cardinals whipped the Giants, 8-3, on Thursday night to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. "The Giants have proven they're a great team, and they had their backs against the wall and came back against the Reds.
"But I think the leadership and the camaraderie that we have has a lot to do with where we are. We had a lot of injuries and key figures that aren't a part of this team anymore, and we've found a way to get back here."
The Cards continue to prove to be a gritty, resilient bunch that obviously rises to the occasion. When the going gets tough, they get going, as their seven-game victory against the Rangers in the 2011 World Series can attest.
"We have the heart to win and a lot of confidence," said David Freese, the hero of last year's World Series. "When you have that, you're going to do some good things."
Last year, the Redbirds were 8 1/2 games behind the Braves and the sole NL Wild Card spot on Sept. 1 and then passed them on a wild final night of the regular season. This year, they clinched the newly minted second Wild Card berth by eliminating the Dodgers on the next-to-last day of the season.
Last year, St. Louis was down to its last pitch, not once, but twice in Game 6 of the World Series and came back to win. Just last Friday in Game 5 of their NL Division Series, the Cardinals trailed the Nationals by two in the ninth and were again down to their last at-bat. Not once, but three times. They scored four runs to win the series.
"They're a good club. They fight hard," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "To do what they did last year -- that was amazing -- win the World Series and you're a pitch away from losing a couple of times. And what they did in Washington, they keep fighting. And they're a balanced ballclub. It's a tough lineup to get through, and good pitching. They're solid.
"You get to the playoffs and you're a good club. But they do have something going -- there's no getting around that -- with what they did last year and what they've done already this year."
To be sure, the Giants are no slouches, either. They beat the Rangers in five games to win the 2010 World Series and are back in the NLCS again after overcoming a 2-0 deficit to the Reds in the NLDS. After losing the first two games at home, the Giants swept the next three in Cincinnati. And that was against a Reds team that won the NL Central by nine games over the Cards.
St. Louis finished six games behind for the first NL Wild Card spot, but defeated Atlanta in a one-game playoff to advance to the NLDS. Now, the Cardinals are just five victories away from becoming the first NL team to win back-to-back World Series since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in 1975-76.
Resilient or not, no one in a Redbirds uniform is jumping ahead of himself.
"If I know those Giants over there, they'll play their tails off," said Adam Wainwright, who pitched seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball to earn his first postseason win as a starter on Thursday night. "We're going to show up tomorrow and play every inning like it's our last."
"We're looking at a team right here in the Giants that has shown a great deal of resiliency, as well," first-year manager Mike Matheny said. "They walked into Cincinnati and did something very unlikely. So we don't look past that, at all. What we're looking at is an opportunity to come out and play tomorrow. We have to keep playing."
Make no mistake about it, St. Louis is a different team than a year ago. Gone is Albert Pujols to free agency. Lance Berkman missed most of the season with a knee injury. Manager Tony La Russa retired. Pitching coach Dave Duncan left to tend to his ailing wife.
Yet, the Cardinals won 90 last year and 88 this season.
"All season, I've been commending these guys for the fight that they have and how they just don't go away," Matheny said. "That's part of their character, I think, and it's just become their nature. But saying that, I know we still have a long way to go."
Saying that, the Cards are just one win away from ascending to the World Series.
Last team in, last team out.