Cards’ 6th-inning miscues have Giants on verge of NL pennant

SAN FRANCISCO — The seventh inning has been home to the St. Louis Cardinals’ special blend of playoff “devil magic.”

The San Francisco Giants’ answer? Beat them to it.

With two quirky infield plays in the bottom of the sixth — both revolving around St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams — the Giants took the lead in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series for good and sealed an eventual 6-4 win. The Wednesday victory has San Francisco one victory shy of its third World Series appearance in five years.

“We didn’t hit the ball hard, but we had some speed out there,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “These guys, they are a gritty bunch. We are not hitting the long ball, and if you’re not doing that, you’d better find some other ways to get some runs.”

For the Giants, that hinged entirely on a small-ball sequence in the sixth. With runners on second and third and Gregor Blanco at the plate, the Giants’ speedy center fielder chopped a ball to first that prompted Adams to try for home rather than the sure out at first. His off-balance throw was late and low to catcher Tony Cruz, allowing Juan Perez to tie the game at 4-4.

Then, with still only one out and runners at first and third, rookie second baseman Joe Panik came to bat. Giants third-base coach Tim Flannery laid it out simply for Brandon Crawford, who reached on his first hit of the NLCS moments before — a single — and stood 90 feet from his team grabbing the lead after trailing 4-1.

Adams was hugging the line with a runner on first, so if the ball went right to him and he threw home again — as he had just done — Crawford was to retreat back to the base. But if Adams went to second, then Crawford would break for home “and keep on going.”

Adhering perfectly to the unwritten script, Panik did his part by knocking one right to Adams, who stepped on first for the force but then tried to end the inning by throwing to second to get Blanco. The throw went wide left, and Crawford ran home without a challenge.

“That was what I hoped (Adams) would do,” Panik said. “That’s not an easy play for any first baseman, with momentum taking you away from second base. Not an easy throw.”

Crawford danced only slightly along the third-base line and then bolted for home once he realized Adams was not going to look him down.

Once St. Louis shortstop Jhonny Peralta had been pulled off second by the errant throw, the game — and possibly the series — effectively belonged to San Francisco.

“It’s funny that it happened exactly how (Flannery) said,” Crawford said.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was pleased that Adams got at least one out on the second run-scoring play of the frame, but emphasized that they’ll handle such a scenario differently the next time.

“It’s the right play by touching the base,” Matheny said. “But (Crawford) took off once (Adams) released the ball to second base. That’s not really the play we want.”

That is essentially why San Francisco is leading the NLCS 3-1 and on the verge of another NL pennant and St. Louis is not. The Giants are using speed, fundamentals and quick thinking to outhustle and out-scrap the Cardinals, who suddenly can’t seem to string together any stretch of quality baseball from start to finish.

The Cardinals’ early 4-1 lead was a memory by the time the seventh inning rolled around. The Giants bullpen, which allowed only six baserunners and struck out seven over the final six shutout innings, simply would not yield when it mattered most.

With ace Madison Bumgarner on the mound for Game 5 on Thursday night, the Giants need only to pull it all together one more time to reach another unlikely — and deserved — trip to the World Series. Bumgarner has an 0.76 ERA in 23 2/3 innings this postseason.

For St. Louis, that means using every conceivable drop of devil magic remaining — provided there’s any left to be found.