Why the St. Louis Cardinals Should Be Scared Heading Back to the Bay

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Why the St. Louis Cardinals Should Be Scared Heading Back to the Bay
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Matt Holliday is hitting .190 in the 2012 NLCS.

Though the St. Louis Cardinals lost Game 5 of the NLCS on Friday by a score of 5-0, they are still in control of the series with a 3-2 lead.

But are the Cards really in control here, or did they lose that as well?

St. Louis was ready to celebrate a second consecutive National League pennant and trip to the World Series. The Cardinals had a chance to close out the series and prevent a return to San Francisco for a Game 6—and Game 7, if necessary. 

Not doing so is obviously a disappointment, and it has to be something of a shock. The San Francisco Giants looked beaten after losing Game 4 on Thursday. Their starting pitching hadn't performed up to par, and their lineup wasn't producing much offense.

Meanwhile, pitching and hitting seemed to be coming together for the Cardinals. They got an excellent start from Adam Wainwright, while Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina broke out of slumps with a combined four hits and four RBI. 

Circumstances were ideal for a series clincher and celebration at Busch Stadium Friday night, but the Giants obviously weren't ready for their season to end just yet. If the Cardinals are to win the NLCS, they'll have to do it at AT&T Park. 

 

Game 5 highlights from St. Louis.

Zero Against Zito

The Cardinals looked as if their lineup had broken out of its collective slump and was ready to start rolling as it had for most of the regular season. 

But whatever progress St. Louis may have made in Game 4 took a step back in Game 5. Perhaps more accurately, the Cards' offense ran into a wall named Barry Zito. 

Prior to Game 5, the wry smiles and wisecracks from reporters, analysts and fans were plentiful. The Giants' season rides on Zito's left arm. 

Chances of extending the season did not look good, considering how thoroughly mediocre Zito had been in six years with the Giants. His record was 58-69 with a 4.47 ERA.

Though he had his best season with San Francisco this year, Zito raised old doubts when he couldn't make it through the third inning of his start in the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds. But he rebounded to pitch one of the best games of his career against the Cardinals on Friday.

Zito pitched into the eighth inning, allowing no runs and six hits. He didn't blow away the St. Louis hitters, but he's never been that kind of pitcher. Zito had everything working—his slider, curveball and changeup, along with an effective fastball—preventing the Cardinals from making good contact. 

Holliday suffered a setback with an 0-for-4 performance. Allen Craig and David Freese each notched one hit. Molina continued his turnaround, batting 2-for-4, but he had no runners to drive in. Even the returning Carlos Beltran couldn't do much, getting one hit in four at-bats. 

The Cardinals have no reason not to remain confident as they head to San Francisco for Game 6. But they also have to be wondering why they haven't been able to find consistency at the plate. 

 

Best Pitchers to Come

The St. Louis lineup might not get much relief over the next one to two games. The Giants starting pitcher in Game 6 will be Ryan Vogelsong, who held the Cardinals to one run and four hits over seven innings during Game 2.

Vogelsong has been San Francisco's best starting pitcher during the postseason, allowing one run in each of his two appearances. Going back to the regular season, he's given up one run or fewer in five consecutive starts.

Might the Cards do better against Vogelsong the second time around? Well, this will be the third time he's faced St. Louis. On Aug. 8, Vogelsong pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals, allowing just three hits.

So he's given up one run and seven hits over 14 innings versus St. Louis. Yes, that's a small sample size, but it might also indicate a pattern of success.

If the Giants can push the NLCS to a Game 7, Matt Cain will get the start. Though he hasn't been dominant in the postseason thus far, he is the team's No. 1 starter, which is exactly how Giants manager Bruce Bochy wanted his rotation to work out.

It's not like Cain pitched badly in Game 3 of the series. He allowed three runs and six hits over 6.2 innings. If you're a believer in the quality start, Cain provided that for the Giants. Had the San Francisco lineup been able to score more than one run, his effort likely would have been enough to win. 

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Barry Zito didn't allow a run in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Though Cain compiled a 6.94 ERA in his two regular season starts against the Cardinals, the Giants have to feel confident in him being the starter for a do-or-die Game 7. Maybe Cain will even rediscover his untouchable form from the 2010 postseason when he didn't allow a single run. 

St. Louis will counter with Chris Carpenter in Game 6 and Kyle Lohse in Game 7, so there's little reason for them to be concerned about the pitching matchups.

Perhaps they might be a bit worried about Carpenter coming off a Game 2 in which he allowed five runs (two earned) in only four innings. But his postseason record (10-3, 2.94 ERA) should overshadow one bad start. And as MLB.com's Matthew Leach points out, Carpenter has been at his best when he has the opportunity to close out a series. 

Then there's Lohse, who's allowed a total of four runs in his three starts during these playoffs. That includes holding the Giants to one run in Game 3 of the NLCS. If the Cards can't start Carpenter in a Game 7, Lohse might be the next best choice. 

The perception of a series can quickly change, depending on the results of the most recent game. The Cardinals might be back on their heels a bit after squandering the chance to close out the NLCS at home. 

It certainly felt like the Giants seized some momentum going into Game 6 at their home park. Now their pitching and hitting appears to be coming together when needed most. The Cardinals may regret not ending this series when they had the chance.

 

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