ST. LOUIS — When the damage was over, when the St. Louis Cardinals’ hopes of closing this National League Championship Series at home were all but gone, Lance Lynn walked toward his dugout to little applause.
It was a polite clap from few, the recognition a far cry from what the burly right-hander had in mind on what could have been a night of champagne and celebration to mark his franchise’s 19th NL pennant.
Such visions were short-lived during the San Francisco Giants’ 5-0 victory in Game 5 on Friday night, dashed with the NL West champion’s four-run barrage in the fourth inning at a chilled Busch Stadium to cut the Cardinals’ series lead to 3-2.
Lynn’s messy stretch lacked many things: Poise and control, command and a soft touch when throwing to second base, chief among them.
So with Lynn’s loose hand, the Giants were made stronger. This series returns Sunday to San Francisco, where St. Louis must answer in a hostile setting with World Series dreams swirling around the Bay Area. His struggle meant a renewed Giants surge, and it erased positive memories of one of his most efficient early-inning outings of the year.
“I didn’t give up a hit until the fourth,” Lynn said. “It was just another bad inning. This time of the year, they’re going to blow up on you if you give them that extra out, and I gave them that extra out tonight.”
Here’s how the damage occurred: With one out, Marco Scutaro scored from second base after Lynn’s errant throw to second to try to retire Pablo Sandoval skipped off the bag and into center field, following a soft chopper from Hunter Pence. After Brandon Belt popped out and Gregor Blanco walked, Brandon Crawford singled to right field, scoring Sandoval and Pence. Finally, Barry Zito reached on a bunt single to third, scoring Blanco.
Just like that, Lynn’s stellar night went up in smoke. Just like that — with Zito throwing a gem — a return trip to San Francisco became reality.
“I thought he was as good as we’ve seen him all season those first three innings,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Lynn. “He looked like he was untouchable. He was mixing his off-speed pitches very well and executing his fastball instead of just trying to throw past people. He was pitching.”
That command didn’t last, though, and it brought to mind Lynn’s collapse in Game 1 of this NLCS on Sunday. That night, the Giants tagged Lynn for four runs in the fourth inning — a rally that nearly shaved the Cardinals’ six-run lead. St. Louis’ bullpen performed well after he was chased, allowing two hits the rest of the way to preserve the victory.
On Friday, Lynn’s stumble went beyond his listless fourth. In the second inning, he approached the plate with bases loaded and one out. He dribbled into a double play, ending the Cardinals’ best chance early to crack a confident Zito.
Despite that blunder, Lynn’s throw into center field was the lasting bruise. Afterward, he stood before his locker in a quiet clubhouse and accepted responsibility for the error.
He was concise and direct. He was willing to shoulder complete blame. He refused to criticize shortstop Pete Kozma, the nearest defender to the ball when it trickled into the outfield. He refused to complicate the issue, saying, “It was just one of those times where I short-armed it a little bit.”
“I turned around and threw the ball into center field and could have got myself out of an inning,” Lynn said. “It was definitely my fault.”
Now the Cardinals must regroup and try to close once more.
But the Giants have proved themselves to be playoff-tested. They won three consecutive games at Great American Ball Park to oust the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Division Series. Hooking Lynn gives them belief that they can achieve the feat again.
So as Lynn walked off the field Friday, he was reminded how fast fate can change on the mound in October. As Lynn has learned twice this series, plans are perilous this time of year. The champagne remained capped, and a flight to the West Coast awaited.