With these two teams, this is the way it had to be. The Giants only stir when they face elimination. Ditto for the Cardinals, who led the National League Championship Series, three games to one, then seemed to say, “Whoa, too easy!”
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Game 7 is the logical destiny for these two, has been from the start. The Giants are 5-0 in elimination games this postseason. The Cardinals are 6-0 in elimination games going back to last postseason. Both teams, finally, will be on full manic alert Monday night.
“You get those tingly feelings before the game,” Giants right fielder Hunter Pence said. “When you’re out in the outfield, and there’s a flyball hit, you draw on something different. Your back is against the wall. It’s a different animal. You can’t even explain it.”
Well, the Giants’ 6-1 victory Sunday night in Game 6 left the playing field level, the urgency the same for both clubs. Weather permitting — and rain is possible, according to the forecast — Game 7 will be Monday night (FOX, 8 p.m. ET).
To the uninitiated, momentum would seem to favor the Giants, who have won the last two games and will be at home before another raucous crowd. More knowledgeable observers know better, know that the old Earl Weaver adage — “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher” — is all that matters in this sport.
“You can kind of throw the momentum thing out the window,” said the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman, who is inactive for this series due to a knee injury. “Game 7, it’s going to be whoever gets the best pitcher. To be honest with you, I think whoever wins, it’s not indicative of who has the better team. It’s going to be who gets the best start.”
Maybe the Cardinals’ Kyle Lohse will produce it. Maybe the Giants’ Matt Cain will. Know this, though: The Cardinals are the team that needs to snap out of it, offensively, defensively and with their starting pitching.
The Giants are crazy loose, their dugout resembling a frat party, their crowd whipped into a frenzy Sunday night by Metallica’s James Hetfield crying, “Play Ball!” (after shouting, “Let’s kick some Cardinal ass!”) and Lil Wayne singing (not rapping), “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“These fans are crazy,” Lohse said. “It’s going to be fun to go out there and feel it. It’s also going to be fun to block it out.”
Lohse, though, faces a special challenge. The Giants have scored 11 runs in the last two games after producing just 15 in the first four. Neither of the Cardinals’ last two starters, Lance Lynn and Chris Carpenter, worked into the fifth inning.
Lynn was undone, in part, by a throwing error he made trying to start a double play. Shortstop Pete Kozma made an error behind Carpenter, and third baseman David Freese failed to get the ball out of his glove on a potential throw to the plate.
The Cardinals, after allowing 45 unearned runs during the regular season, fewest in the NL, have allowed 10 in this series, an NLCS record. As Freese said, “That’s just not good.” It’s particularly not good when the offense is creating little margin for error, providing just one run in the last two games.
Left-hander Barry Zito dominated the Cardinals in Game 5, right-hander Ryan Vogelsong was nearly as untouchable in Game 6. Most of the Cardinals simply credited the pitchers, with manager Mike Matheny saying of Vogelsong, “He did everything he wanted to do to us.”
Freese, though, said the hitters need to take responsibility, too.
“Even if we face tough pitching, we have the ability to put up runs,” he said. “We’re getting out of the zone a little bit. We’re a team that usually is pretty patient.
“Obviously, we’ve faced some tough pitching. But borderline strikes, we’ve got to do a better job on those. Those can change ABs and those can change innings. We’ve got to do a better job taking control of the AB.”
It didn’t help the Cardinals that their No. 3 hitter, left fielder Matt Holliday, was a late scratch Sunday night due to lower back stiffness. Matheny did not seem overly confident that Holliday would play in Game 7, either, saying afterward that his back tightened up as the game went on.
Still, the Cardinals won Game 4 without their No. 2 hitter, right fielder Carlos Beltran, who just happens to own the best home-run rate in postseason history. Berkman said flatly that even without Holliday, the Cardinals’ offense is better than the Giants’.
“I’ll probably get roasted for saying this, but I still think you take a guy like Matt out of our lineup, we still have a better lineup,” Berkman said. “I think up and down the lineup we’re still more dangerous.”
Berkman said he meant no disrespect to the Giants, and went on to add that his point is moot anyway, explaining, “To me, this series is 100 percent about starting pitching.”
Which gets back to the original question: Lohse vs. Cain. The same matchup as in Game 3, when Lohse allowed one run in 5-2/3 innings, Cain three in 6-2/3, in a game the Cardinals won, 3-1.
Just as the teams are practically mirror images of each other, the starting pitchers are, too. Lohse was 16-3 in the regular season, Cain 16-5. Lohse had a 2.86 ERA, Cain a 2.79. Lohse has been better in the postseason, posting a 1.96 ERA to Cain’s 4.67.
Not that any of it matters now.
The Game 4 starters — Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals, Tim Lincecum for the Giants — will be available out of the bullpen. Matheny avoided using most of his top relievers Sunday night; the one who appeared, Edward Mujica, threw only three pitches. Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo all worked for the Giants, but combined for just 21 pitches.
This is the way it had to be. All hands on deck. Right down to the end.
“You’ve seen us the last couple years it seems, unfortunately, we don’t win until we absolutely need to,” Lohse said.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy added, “To get to this point we’re excited, after being down 3-1. You go out there and you play like there’s no tomorrow.”
These teams are not unfamiliar with the concept.
When there is no tomorrow, they are at their best.