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Paul White, USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals are turning brinksmanship into an art form for a second consecutive October. And they're doing it against greater odds.

The one-strike-from-elimination rallies are back, but two iconic figures from last year's miracle World Series win against the Texas Rangers are not.

Still, without first baseman Albert Pujols, who took $240 million from the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent, and manager Tony La Russa, who retired, the Cardinals have a chance to get back to the World Series - as soon as Friday, if they can win three consecutive home games beginning Wednesday and close out their tied best-of-seven National League Championship Series with the San Francisco Giants.

"Sure, it reminds me of last year," La Russa said to USA TODAY Sports. "There are 18 or 19 guys from last year. The same guys, enjoying what they do. I tell you, they're tough."

Tough enough to eliminate the Washington Nationals with a four-run ninth inning in the decisive fifth game of their Division Series. The Cardinals trailed by two runs and were down to their final strike, reminiscent of their comeback against Texas in Game 6 of the World Series last October.

"We are the team to beat," first baseman Lance Berkman told teammates on the eve of the playoffs, though the Cardinals qualified with an 88-74 record only because a second wild-card team was added in each league this season and they won a one-game wild-card round at Atlanta .

Berkman no longer is Pujols' replacement after having knee surgery. And top pitcher Chris Carpenter wasn't available until September. But the Cardinals keep finding a way.

"A lot of us were part of it last year," says second baseman Dan Descalso, who has become one of this fall's heroes. "We enjoyed being on this stage and being in these big games and we're still having fun."

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THE FRANCHISE

Once they were outbid for Pujols, the Cardinals had to take a different approach.

"The smartest decision we made was not thinking we've got to replace him," says general manager John Mozeliak. "His performance for over a decade was as elite as they come."

Instead, the Cardinals combined talent on hand with their most notable free agent signing of the winter.

Carlos Beltran's two-year, $26 million deal hardly was in the Pujols stratosphere, but the plan was for him to take over right field and move Berkman to first base. Plus, Allen Craig was expected back in May from knee surgery and could play both positions.

But Berkman's own knee problems limited him to 32 games and Craig took over first base full time.

Craig had a higher average, on-base and slugging percentages than Pujols this year. Had he not missed April, Craig's 22 homers and 92 RBI could have been closer to Pujols' 30 and 105 for the Los Angeles Angels.

"When (Pujols) left, Carlos Beltran was a real good fit," La Russa says. "You put him in between Holliday and Berkman, you're talking about a lot of depth. They didn't have Berkman, but they had Craig."

Gone, too, is the dominating Pujols presence. Not that he was unpopular, but he was a larger-than-life figure. It's different now.

"Nobody's ever going to tell you they don't like their teammates but I've been on some teams where there was an indifference," says Berkman. "This team is different in that we're very close."

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THE ACE

The return of Carpenter might be a bigger surprise than any of the Cardinals' remarkable finishes. He was supposed to miss the season after surgery to alleviate pressure on nerves that caused numbness in his pitching hand, then up his arm and eventually to his neck and face.

"They take out your first rib," Carpenter says, "with a pair of like hedge-clipping-looking things. You have three scalene muscles, small little neck muscles, they take out the front one and the middle one because that's where the artery and the nerve go through when they come out of your neck."

Carpenter defied doctors' predictions and returned Sept. 21. After three regular-season starts, he held Washington scoreless into the sixth inning in the Division Series but lost NLCS Game 2 Monday.

Carpenter's presence is nearly as important as his pitching. He wouldn't let the Division Series celebration begin because Descalso and Pete Kozma were still on the field doing post-game TV interviews.

"We're one team and everybody contributes," he says. "I wasn't going to let it happen."

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THE NO NAMES

If you paid close attention, you'll remember that Descalso played a key role in last October's heroics. His 10th-inning single started the Cardinals' second rally in Game 6 of the World Series.

Now, he's front and center along with his double-play partner and the newest of the Cardinals heroes, Kozma.

"It's nice to have been there before " says Descalso, who has taken over as the everyday second baseman and seized a prominent spot in franchise lore as the Cardinals rallied from down 6-0 at Washington in the final NLDS game.

Last year he had just three at-bats in each of St. Louis' three postseason series but was 2-for-3 in the World Series.

His increased role was part of the plan this year, unlike Kozma, a .236 career minor league hitter asked to fill in for injured shortstop Rafael Furcal.

"(Descalso) has snuck up on some people because, first of all, his manager didn't give him consistent opportunities through the season," Matheny says. "As far as Pete Kozma goes, nobody knew what to expect."

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THE MANAGER

Last year's success helped Mike Matheny get his first managing job - with the World Series champions.

"Had we not won and Tony leaves, it might have made it look differently at how we changed the manager," says Mozeliak. " Last year's success helped bring things together and it helped make our transition that much easier."

The players say Matheny, 42, a former catcher with the Cardinals and three other teams, hasn't messed up success. "It's been a continuation of what we had last year with Tony," says pitcher Kyle Lohse.

Nearly as important was a pitching change from La Russa's long-time lieutenant Dave Duncan to Derek Lilliquist, who had been the bullpen coach.

"Dunc was so important to that ballclub, you got to give a lot of credit to Derek ," La Russa says.

Most important to Mozeliak has been the continuity of a clubhouse culture that's produced two World Series titles this century.

"I don't feel anything has changed that dramatically," Mozeliak says.

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THE COMEBACKS

The Cardinals' last-strike escapes over the past two postseasons:

-- Oct. 27, 2011, ninth inning: The protective plastic was hanging in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium so the Texas Rangers could celebrate a World Series title. The Rangers led 7-5 in Game 6. Pujols' one-out double and a walk to Berkman created hope. Rangers closer Neftali Feliz struck out Craig, then threw a ball followed by two strikes to David Freese, who lined the next pitch to right field. Balls had been carrying in that direction on the cool night's light breeze. Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz stepped forward, then hesitated - just long enough for the ball to get over his head for a game-tying triple.

-- Oct. 27, 2011, 10th inning: The Rangers went back ahead on Josh Hamilton's two-run homer in the 10th. In the bottom of the inning Darren Oliver gave up a pair of singles. After Lohse's sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, Scott Feldman got Ryan Theriot to ground out for the second out, although a run scored. After an intentional walk to Pujols, Berkman was the last chance. He fouled off two of the first three pitches - one strike away again. Berkman took a ball, then lined a single to center field to tie the game. The Cardinals won 10-9 when Freese led off the 11th with a homer.

-- Oct. 12, 2012: For the second year in a row, the Cardinals were in the fifth game of the Division Series against the team with the best regular season record in the majors. Last year, Carpenter beat Philadelphia's Roy Halladay 1-0. Trailing Washington 7-5 entering the ninth against Nationals closer Drew Storen, the Cardinals got a leadoff double from Beltran. But Matt Holliday grounded out and Craig struck out. Storen had a 2-2 count on Yadier Molina before walking him. It was 1-2 on Freese before he walked. Descalso bounced a single to tie the game and advance Freese to third. Descalso stole second and he and Freese scored on a single by Kozma. "It's just the kind of people they are," Matheny said. "They believe in themselves."

Contributing: Bob Nightengale

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