WASHINGTON -- Champagne was in hand. White tarpaulin served as protection over the walls. But Chris Carpenter refused to let the celebration begin.
The veteran Cardinals pitcher instructed his teammates to pause, insisted they wait until ninth-inning heroes Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma could wrap up separate on-field interviews. The middle infielders eventually escaped to the clubhouse and ducked into the middle of a circle that had formed in their absence.
Carpenter handed Kozma a bottle of champagne, and before insisting that the rookie pop the first cork, the veteran right-hander had one thing he first needed to say.
"I told you that when we came back," Carpenter began, "that's it's going to be the most epic [comeback] ever."
Upon Carpenter's finish, the same team that wouldn't go away last October began celebrating its refusal to do so again. The Cards -- down to their final out, their final strike five times -- stunned the Nationals by scoring four two-out runs, capping a comeback as improbable as the one they made in a World Series elimination game against the Rangers last October.
From a six-run hole, the Cardinals emerged with a 9-7 victory in a win-or-go home National League Division Series Game 5 on Friday night. It was the largest comeback in a winner-take-all game in postseason history. With the Cards advancing, it ensured a Wild Card team would play in a League Championship Series for the third straight season.
"Miraculous," Adam Wainwright said afterward. "Today, their starting pitcher gave them a whole lot of reasons why they should quit. And they didn't."
"I just can't describe what happened," Carlos Beltran added. "Honestly. It just happened so fast."
St. Louis entered the ninth down by two, but having scratched away most of the six-run deficit that seemed daunting against 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez.
The Cardinals, only 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position through eight innings, needed a baserunner, and Beltran answered with a leadoff double. Nats closer Drew Storen, however, responded by retiring two, lifting a sellout crowd to its feet.
What happened next would leave them stunned.
Yadier Molina and David Freese -- both down to their final strikes -- drew walks to extend the frame. Freese, behind 1-2 in his at-bat, laid off several borderline pitches to reach.
"You just have to battle against that guy," Freese said. "The thing about the postseason is, if you're unfazed, you have a shot."
Freese's walk passed the inning to Daniel Descalso, whose solo homer an inning earlier had continued the Cards' steady climb closer. Descalso swung at the first pitch, lining it off the glove of a diving Ian Desmond at short. Two runs scored to tie the game.
"I was on first base, all fired up, and I looked over at the dugout and the guys were going crazy, and [that] got [me] fired up even more out there," Descalso said.
Then it was eight-hole hitter Kozma -- the same middle infielder who just two months ago seemed to have no future in the organization -- who dropped a single into right field to give the Cardinals a two-run lead.
"It helped that Descalso got that hit," Kozma said. "That took the edge off a little bit, though it wasn't near enough. I still had to bear down and try to take myself out of the moment and take the crowd out of it."
Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth, returned to the mound to close the game and earn the Cards a ticket to the NLCS. They'll face the Giants, with Game 1 scheduled for Sunday in San Francisco (7 p.m. CT on FOX).
On the other side, it left the Nationals, who led the Majors with 98 wins, with nothing to do until next spring.
"I've got a bad taste in my mouth that's going to stay there for a couple months," Storen said. "It's probably never going to leave."
This comeback, though it will be remembered for what happened late, was hardly hurried. Rather, the Cardinals made a methodical climb to bail out Wainwright, who before leaving the mound, gathered his infielders and asked them to pick him up.
Wainwright, whose 2 1/3-inning start was the shortest of his career, told others the same thing in the dugout after exiting with the Nats holding a seemingly commanding 6-0 lead.
"I told myself that I didn't care if we win or lose, but I was going to do everything I can to help the team and pick him up," Beltran said. "It's hard when a guy like him takes the mound and gives up six runs. He feels like it's his fault. We win as a team, we lose as a team."
About the same time, Carpenter began making his rounds, too, mouthing fantasies about an impending epic comeback. Funny thing was, everyone bought in.
"They did not believe that six runs was too much," said first-year manager Mike Matheny. "They didn't stop believing. It wasn't just a bunch of rah-rah stuff. It seemed like every inning, there was more and more momentum. It was just one of those things that you cannot describe."
Momentum started to shift with a lift from the relief corps, which, beginning with rookies Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, tamed Washington's offense. In 5 2/3 innings, St. Louis' relievers allowed only one run.
In the meantime, an offense that had been held to only three hits a day earlier went to work.
Matt Holliday drove home a run in the fourth. Two more scored in the fifth with some help from Gonzalez, who walked three and delivered a run-scoring wild pitch in the frame.
The Cards pulled closer in the seventh when Beltran moved Jon Jay to third with a double, putting the center fielder in position to score on Holliday's groundout. In the eighth, Descalso sent a leadoff homer over the right-field wall.
That made it 6-5.
"Maybe we're just stubborn. Maybe that's it," said Motte, who gave one run back in the bottom of the eighth. "These guys don't quit. They don't ever give up. They didn't give up early in the game. They didn't go up there saying this game was over. They chipped away, chipped away."
St. Louis was forced to play from behind after Washington's sleeping offense awoke instantly against Wainwright. Seven pitches into his start, Wainwright had served up a Jayson Werth double, a Bryce Harper triple and a home run to Ryan Zimmerman.
That three-run deficit turned into a six-run hole when Wainwright served up a pair of third-inning homers. That did it for the right-hander.
"I was absolutely at the lowest point of my career," Wainwright said. "I'm sitting there going, 'I cannot believe that if this ends today, it will all be because of me going out there and not having a good performance.'"
Instead of a sleepless night, he'll enjoy a celebratory one on a cross-country flight. Because, as Wainwright put it: "The team in this clubhouse has so much heart that it is ridiculous."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.