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Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma: Cardinals’ unlikely Game 5 heroes

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The scene in the visitors' clubhouse early Saturday morning was what could have been for the Washington Nationals.

Their National League Division Series opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, stood around large blue containers of Budweiser and champagne. White plastic sheets covered their lockers, green plastic ones the clubhouse televisions. One player yelled that it was time to get the party started.

"Nah, wait for the heroes!" another answered.

So for four minutes, 23 Cardinals players who stood in the visitors' clubhouse at Nationals Park waited. They waited for a pair of middle infielders, two of the younger players on the team. On this night, they were plenty old enough to enjoy the celebration that was about to ensue.

The first, 25-year-old second baseman Daniel Descalso, finally walked through the door to the roar of a single syllable: Deeee. Longtime Cardinal and Game 3 starter Chris Carpenter finally went and fetched the other, and in a matter of seconds, shortstop Pete Kozma had finally joined the party.

"Pete gets first pop today!" Carpenter yelled.

And with that, the booze started to flow. It rolled over Kozma's wavy hair and soaked the dark blue carpeting. The 24-year-old rookie with only 109 major league at-bats had reached base three times for the second consecutive game in the Cardinals' gutsy 9-7 series-clinching win against the Nationals. He also had the decisive hit: a single to right field that plated the two winning runs in the top of the ninth.

Descalso also had three hits in the game, including a solo shot in the eighth inning that gave the Cardinals hope and a single off Ian Desmond's glove that tied the game one inning later. The pair hit a combined 10-for-35 (.286) in the series out of the seventh and eighth spots in the St. Louis lineup. Together they hit three homers, scored 11 runs and walked six times.

"Obviously, they're unsung heroes, but I think they're going to be recognized given the success they had here," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "You look at what Descalso and Kozma did, I mean, every time you thought you needed something, they came through."

Kozma's performance was particularly impressive. After hitting .232 at Triple-A Memphis for the majority of the year, he was called up to the Cardinals in late August to replace injured shortstop Rafael Furcal. By the end of September, he was hitting .338 with the big league club.

In fact, it was Kozma's jitters that almost kept St. Louis out of the NLDS in the first place. In the Wild Card game against the Atlanta Braves, a miscommunication between the young shortstop and left fielder Matt Holliday resulted in a dropped pop-up and rare use of the infield fly rule. Had it not been called, the Cardinals may be sitting at home right now.

That's all water under the bridge in Holliday's eyes.

"Ever since [Kozma] got called up when Furcal got hurt, they just put him in there and kind of just told him to go play and he's played great," Holliday said. "It's been fun to watch."

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright surrendered six runs in just 2 1/3 innings of work. He paced around the dugout and asked teammates to pick him up after his poor performance. They told him they would, but Wainwright specifically remembered Kozma's reaction. The most inexperienced player on the team paused, looked him right in the eye and said, "You got it."

That's exactly the kind of poise and leadership that he and Descalso displayed all series long.

"Unbelievable," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said of his seven and eight hitters. "It's unbelievable not just what they've done in this series, but down the stretch. They've been so good for us. Koz stepped into a tough situation that he didn't anticipate himself being in, and we needed him. We needed him bad. And he came in and he didn't just do a good job, he did a great job."

"The big hits, you just never really expect that from your eight-hole hitter," Matheny continued. "You just want him to go out and catch the ball. But he's done that and then been big offensively for us too. He's just been a huge pickup for us."

The beer kept flowing and the corks kept popping as more people walked into the visitors' clubhouse. The room that had been tense and reserved just one night before was now home to a full-on party. Players drank and laughed, and those scattered around the locker room speaking with reporters all said essentially the same thing: They never gave up.

"It could be anybody," Kozma said of his game-winning hit. "Fortunately, they called on me. I just happened to be that guy."

In the middle of the clubhouse, somebody asked Descalso if the win had been destiny.

"Call it whatever you want to call it, but these guys in here never say die," he said as another Budweiser was poured over his head. "Oh my God, it's cold."

On the other side of the stadium, the Nationals quietly coped with the loss. They could only imagine just how cold it was.

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