SAN FRANCISCO — As many times as he gets asked, Cardinals closer Jason Motte still has no perfect answer for how St. Louis found a way to win at Washington after trailing 6-0 and advance to the NL championship series again.
"These guys just prove what big hearts they have and how much they go out there and work their butts off," said Motte, Friday night's winning pitcher in Game 5. "Someone asked me last night how we keep doing it, and I said, 'I don't know, maybe we're just stubborn. We just don't give up.' That's kind of how you have to be."
The San Francisco Giants get it, all right. They've been doing it the same way.
The past two World Series winners sure are showing their championship mettle in mid-October.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny will watch the game again, once things slow down, so he can truly appreciate just what his Cardinals accomplished in beating the Nationals — the team with baseball's best record this season.
San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy doesn't need another look to know how impressive the reigning World Series champions' ninth-inning comeback was for a 9-7 victory in the nation's capital.
Bochy's team had its own remarkable rally that's not quite as fresh as the Cardinals' feat: Three road wins at Cincinnati to advance after dropping the first two games of the division series at home to the Reds.
They will face off in Game 1 of the NLCS on Sunday night at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner gets the ball for the Giants against 6-foot-5 right-hander Lance Lynn.
"Both teams had their backs against the wall," Bochy said. "It's impressive what the Cardinals did. And, really, if you look at the game we had and the game they had, they were similar. We were up 6-0, barely hung on, and they found a way to get it done. ... I think that says a lot about the two clubs, the character of the clubs and how hard they fight — and it should be a really hard-fought series here."
Bumgarner, a 16-game winner this year, lost Game 2 of the NL division series here to Cincinnati. But the strong left-hander is not one to get rattled, and he gained his share of experience during the Giants' surprising run to the World Series title in 2010 — the first for the franchise since moving West in 1958.
"I felt good last time, things just didn't go my way," Bumgarner said. "That's the way this game is."
While the Giants became the eighth team to erase a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-five series and first in major league history to do it on the road, the Cardinals earned the biggest comeback ever in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to STATS LLC.
"It really hasn't sunk in," Matheny said after an all-night, cross-country trip to the Bay Area. "I see a knockdown-drag out ahead of us. I'm certain Major League Baseball has to be very pleased with the caliber of baseball that's happened so far in this postseason. And I don't see any reason why the excitement wouldn't continue. We're looking at two well-rounded teams."
These clubs have played twice previously in the NLCS, most recently in 2002. The Barry Bonds-led Giants went on to the World Series only to fall short in the decisive Game 7 against the wild-card Angels after coming within six outs of a championship in Game 6.
Daniel Descalso hit a tying, two-out single, and Pete Kozma added a go-ahead, two-run single to lead the Cardinals' rally. Now, Descalso gets to play back home in his native Bay Area, where he grew up going to Athletics games across San Francisco Bay in Oakland.
"It was a long night for us," Descalso said. "It's nice we had this day off to kind of regroup and get a little rest. But it's hard not to be excited after a game like last night, the way that game ended, and to get on a plane and fly all the way across country. We're still recovering."
The Giants, all the while, waited out the game on their team plane still parked on the tarmac in Cincinnati. Players gathered around iPads to watch the improbable comeback by a Cardinals club managed by former Giants catcher, Matheny.
The Cardinals have won all six of their games when facing elimination the past two years, down to their final strike not once but twice against the Texas Rangers in last year's World Series before prevailing.
This time, they faced the same situation against the team with a majors-best 98 wins.
"I don't why we do it. We love the dramatics. I'd like us to not keep waiting until the last strike," pitcher Kyle Lohse said, "because that's too much for my heart to handle."
The Giants barely beat St. Louis to the West Coast after getting delayed more than three hours as their plane refueled and dealt with mechanical problems.
Initially, the plane had enough fuel to take the NL West winners to Washington. Instead, the Giants got to come home. They landed at 5:09 a.m.
"Everyone was rooting and cheering for the Cardinals because we wanted to go home," third baseman Pablo Sandoval said. "I was cheering for St. Louis. I was excited to be back home. Probably almost everybody was cheering for the Cardinals. Every guy was happy to be home. Once we were in the air, I slept the whole flight."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi fell asleep before the NL clincher ended. The last thing he remembered, the Cardinals were trailing 7-5. His television was still on, and when he opened his eyes at one point he saw the final score.
"I said, 'What happened?'" he said. "I looked at it, the game was over and I closed my eyes and went back to bed. Pretty amazing. You think about the games, and you are down 6-0 and you're able to come back. And you keep going at it. This first round was probably as good as it gets. Probably as good of baseball as we have seen when you talk about eight teams playing."
Bochy will carry all five of his starting pitchers again this round, with Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito available out of the bullpen. Matt Cain is expected to go in Game 3, following fellow right-hander Ryan Vogelsong in Monday's Game 2.
Road weary and riding high, the Cardinals and Giants are counting on more close games and playing all 27 outs no matter who is on the mound.
"It's definitely a fun matchup," said Giants catcher Buster Posey, whose grand slam helped seal Game 5 against the Reds. "These should be some fun games to watch. Both teams have good arms, good offenses. And the resiliency of both teams is the strength of both teams."
All games to be broadcast on Fox Sports
Game 1 is at 7:15 p.m. Sunday in San Francisco
Game 2 is at 7:07 p.m. Monday in San Francisco
Game 3 is at 3:07 p.m. Wednesday in St. Louis
Game 4 is at 7:07 p.m. Thursday in St. Louis
Game 5 (if necessary) is at 7:07 p.m. Friday in St. Louis
Game 6 (if necessary) is at 3:45 p.m. Sunday in San Francisco
Game 7 (if necessary) is at 7:07 p.m. Monday in San Francisco