HOUSTON -- One moment, they were battered and bruised, and the reality that their season was only one strike away from ending in despair was staring them right in the face.

The next moment, they were alive and kicking, and heading home to St. Louis, barely needing a jet to help them soar through the clouds.

The Cardinals and their superstar, Albert Pujols, delivered their shining moment Monday night in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Their backs to the wall, they reinvented this series and created a legacy for themselves no matter what happens the rest of the way.

Their remarkable ninth-inning comeback, punctuated by Pujols' tremendous three-run blast to the far reaches of Minute Maid Park, showed that this Cardinals team has fortitude that, frankly, they hadn't really needed to demonstrate until they were down to their very last swing of the 2005 season.

They remain a physical wreck, injured and dinged up all the way through the roster. But Monday, they showed they're an absolutely resolute team mentally, able to scale the highest mountain of doubt and despair and come out on top.

Staring elimination in the face, they laughed and swung away.

Going down in five games apparently just wasn't an option.

"For the kind of club we have and the kind of year we had, losing four in a row would have been tough to take, because we're a better club than that," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

They won 100 games in the regular season. They have a Cy Young candidate, an MVP candidate, a roster full of fine-tuned professionals who know how to play the game right. They're the defending NL champs, so you know they're a good club.

But the Cardinals were never better than they were in the ninth inning of Monday's Game 5. And Pujols, their star of stars, has never been better than when he sent Brad Lidge's 0-and-1 pitch soaring to left field for the go-ahead homer.

"You saw some magic there," La Russa said.

Said Pujols: "I just couldn't believe I did it."

Believe it.

And believing is what got the Cardinals there in the first place.

"It's never over. You've got to play 27 outs," veteran right fielder Larry Walker said.

That's all three outs in all nine innings. That's something that La Russa preaches and the Cardinals heed to a man. Not that the Cardinals invented it, but the concept even has its own motto among the players.

"The guys coined the phrase 'Hard Nine,' and we're going to play a hard nine," their manager said.

But even La Russa had to admit thoughts started creeping into his head that the 27th out wasn't going to be a happy one for the Cardinals, and the Astros were starting to sense the World Series was within their grasp after Lidge struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth.

"In fact, I looked over a couple of times and I was just kind of checking [Astros veteran Jeff] Bagwell out and I could imagine what he was thinking," La Russa said of the man who's played 2,150 games without reaching the World Series.

Before La Russa could consider those thoughts too deeply, the Cardinals put together a comeback for the ages.

Actually, the comeback began not long after the Astros' Lance Berkman had connected on a three-run shot in the seventh that put Houston seemingly on course for its first World Series in 44 years of existence.

And when it came down to the ninth, there were no non-believers in that Cardinals dugout.


From the brink
Five teams have won postseason games after being one out away from elimination.
2005 NLCS, Game 5: Cardinals 5 Astros 4
*1992 NLCS Game 7, Braves 3, Pirates 2
*1986 World Series, Game 6: Mets 6, Red Sox 5
*1986 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox 7, Angels 6
1911 World Series, Game 5: Giants 4, Athletics 3
*=Team would go on to win series.
"We were excited when we came off the field after playing defense," Walker said. "We were pumped up. We just said, 'Let's go. We can do this. Let's get it done.' There was no giving up, that's for sure."

They may be beaten up, but they're not beaten.

If anybody can show you that, it's David Eckstein. The 5-foot-7 leadoff man had a baseball-sized knot on his arm from being plunked by Andy Pettitte in the first inning, and another one on the inside of his left knee from when he fouled a ball in the fourth inning.

"Not a factor at all," Eckstein said. "They made me ice it."

We're talking hard, people. As in, difficult to break, tough to crush, a royal pain to put away.

Maybe Hard Nine has a new meaning now, as in nine guys on the field who are hard to stop.

The Cardinals' Hard Nine live to fight another day.