Let's face it. It just wouldn't be right if the St. Louis Cardinals went through the postseason without finding themselves in at least one Game 7.
No thanks to the San Francisco Giants, the Cardinals will find themselves in a Game 7 once again on Monday night at AT&T Park. The Cards were on the verge of wrapping up the National League Championship Series on Friday, but they're now staring at elimination after being shut down by Ryan Vogelsong in Game 6 of the series on Sunday night.
Like Barry Zito before him in Game 5, Vogelsong was brilliant in Game 6. He allowed one run on only four hits and a walk in seven innings, and topped a previous career high with nine strikeouts. He also helped his own cause with an RBI ground ball in the Giants' four-run second inning that they held up rather easily on their way to a 6-1 win.
The Giants could ask for a lot worse than the situation that's currently at hand. They have a winner-take-all game at their home ballpark set for Monday night, and they're going to have their ace on the mound.
But do the Giants have the overall advantage for Monday's Game 7, or are the chips still stacked in favor of the Cardinals?
This question calls for an immediate discussion.
Who Has the Edge in the Starting Pitching Matchup?
The pitching matchup for Game 7 will be the same as it was in Game 3 of the series. Kyle Lohse will be on the bump for the Cardinals, and Matt Cain will toe the rubber for the Giants.
Lohse got the better of Cain the first time they hooked up in this series, pitching the Cardinals to a 3-1 victory at Busch Stadium. He didn't have his best stuff, as he gave up seven hits and five walks in 5.2 innings of work. But thanks in large part to a couple of key double plays, Lohse was able to get himself out of jams time and again.
Still, giving up that many hits and that many walks is going to kill you more often than not, so it goes without saying that Lohse is going to have to be a lot sharper in Game 7 than he was in Game 3.
In other words, the Cardinals will need Lohse to pitch more like he did in pretty much every other start he made this season before Game 3.
In the 33 starts Lohse made during the regular season, he compiled a 2.86 ERA and limited opposing hitters to a career-low .642 OPS. In his first two starts of the postseason, he allowed only three earned runs on eight hits and two walks in 12.2 innings.
If Lohse recovers from the sloppiness that plagued him in Game 3, he could easily give the Cardinals six or seven very strong innings. If he does, the pressure will be on Cain to respond in kind.
And that's something Cain is very much capable of doing.
Cain actually pitched significantly better than Lohse in Game 3, as he gave the Giants 6.2 innings and allowed three earned runs on six hits and a walk. He made a bad pitch to Matt Carpenter that got hit out of the ballpark, but aside from that, Cain had Cardinals hitters pretty well figured out.
If there is a concern for the Giants, it's that none of the three starts Cain has made against the Cardinals this year went particularly well. He allowed nine earned runs in 11.2 innings against them in the regular season, and then got beat by them again in Game 3 even though he was featuring very good stuff.
Cain's track record against the Cardinals aside, one thing the Giants will feel a little better about is the fact that Cain's numbers at AT&T Park this season were very impressive. He went 8-3 in his 15 home starts, compiling a 2.03 ERA and holding hitters to a .543 OPS.
And as well as the Cardinals have handled Cain this season, he'll have the advantage of going up against a lineup that is a little out of sorts at the moment. In Games 5 and 6 combined, the Cardinals have scored only one run and collected only 12 hits.
There's also a chance that the Cardinals will be without their primary No. 3 hitter. Matt Holliday was scratched from Game 6 with back tightness, a problem that plagued him throughout the regular season.
If Holliday misses Game 7, Cain will have a clear edge. As it is, I'd say he has a slight edge due to a) his body of work at AT&T Park and b) the lingering concerns over Lohse's poor control in Game 3.
UPDATE: Monday, Oct. 22 at 6:45 p.m. ET
According to MLB.com, Holliday is in the Cardinals' starting lineup for Game 7. As per usual, he'll be batting third and playing left field.
[End of update]
The Cardinals were never really in Game 6, as Chris Carpenter coughed up five runs in the first two frames and the club's hitters could do nothing against Vogelsong in the innings that followed.
If there's a silver lining for how Game 6 played out for the Cardinals, however, it's that Mike Matheny was able to avoid using his major bullpen weapons.
Neither Joe Kelly nor Trevor Rosenthal made it into Game 6, meaning that they will be well-rested in case Matheny needs some crucial outs in the middle innings of Game 7.
Matheny also avoided using Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte. Boggs will thus be available for the seventh and eighth innings in Game 7, and Motte has now had plenty of rest after closing out Game 3 with a two-inning save.
If things go horribly awry for Lohse, it's possible that Matheny will turn to one of his best starting pitchers as a long man. According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Matheny was at least considering using Adam Wainwright out of the bullpen in the final two games of the series as of the club's off day on Saturday.
The last time Wainwright came out of the bullpen in the postseason, he closed out the World Series in 2006. Just sayin'.
For their part, the Giants used three of their best relievers to finish off Game 6, as Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo came in to sweep up after Vogelsong.
All of them should be good to go in Game 7, however. Affeldt threw just 10 pitches on Sunday night, while Casilla tossed three and Romo eight.
On Monday night, Bruce Bochy will also have both Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner in the bullpen if he finds himself in need of a long man. In fact, Nate Stuhlbarg of CSNBayArea.com reported that both of them were available for Game 6 if needed.
The jury's out on Bumgarner as a reliever, but relief work suited Lincecum quite well in his first three appearances this postseason. He could come in and turn the tide much like he did in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds.
Even still, the power arms Matheny has in his bullpen are enough to give the edge to the Cardinals here. And it helps that these power arms have had more than enough rest ahead of Game 7.
After piling up 11 runs in Games 5 and 6, the Giants would seem to have found their offense again after it abandoned them in Games 3 and 4.
But don't be so sure. The Giants have been able to put some runs on the board in the last two games, but they have the Cardinals' gloves to thank for these runs as much as they do as their own bats.
In Game 5, Lance Lynn's throwing error in the fourth inning ultimately led to four runs that were all unearned. The only earned run the Giants got came courtesy of Pablo Sandoval's meaningless home run in the eighth inning.
It was the same old story on Sunday night in Game 6. The Giants got their first run when David Freese couldn't make a throw home to get Marco Scutaro in the first inning, and they benefited from more shabby defense in the second when Pete Kozma made an error that allowed a run to score.
In all, three of the five runs the Giants scored off Carpenter in Game 6 were unearned. That means seven of the 11 runs the Giants have scored in the past two games have been unearned.
They'll take those and be happy they got them, obviously, but the last thing the Giants want to do is count on more of the same in Game 7. And the way this series is going, it's more than a little disconcerting that the only hitters they've been able to rely on are Marco Scutaro and Sandoval.
The Cardinals have only managed one run in the last two games of this series, but it would be foolish to start underestimating their offense just because it's had a rough couple of games.
Indeed, what the Cardinals are doing right now is something we saw them do time and again during the regular season. They would look lifeless for three or four games, and then they would explode and stay hot for a week or so.
There's still plenty of explosiveness in Matheny's starting nine. Holliday will be as scary as ever if he plays. Carlos Beltran is one of the great postseason hitters of our time. Allen Craig has plenty of pop in his bat. Yadier Molina has looked a lot better in the last two games after struggling at the plate earlier in the postseason. David Freese is only a year removed from an epic postseason. Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma are both pesky hitters. And so on.
For all the complaints that can be made about the inconsistency of St. Louis' offense, there's a reason the Cardinals scored more runs than all but one other National League club during the regular season. Matheny has some quality hitters at his disposal.
The Giants will have their work cut out for them against Lohse, and the Cardinals will have their work cut out for them against Cain. But if one of these offenses is going to explode and put some crooked numbers on the board in Game 7, the smart money is on the Cardinals.
The advanced defensive metrics say that the Giants were a merely decent defensive team during the regular season. According to FanGraphs, they finished the year with a modest collective UZR of 8.6 and a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) of -7.
However, the Giants are looking pretty good defensively these days. Their outfield defense is tight as a drum with Gregor Blanco in left and Angel Pagan in center, and their infield defense is solid all the way around. Buster Posey is no Yadier Molina behind the plate, but he's still an above-average defensive catcher.
The Cardinals had a decent season on defense in their own right, but their defense has betrayed them in the last two games. Freese, Kozma and Descalso have all had embarrassing moments in the field, and you just never know what's going to happen out in left field regardless of whether Holliday or Craig is out there.
Most days, I'd say the Cardinals are on the same level as the Giants in terms of defense. But not in this series. The Cardinals have been piling up the mental mistakes, and now it's looking like they could pay dearly for them if they don't shape up.
Until they do, the edge here goes to the Giants.
The Other Stuff
It's a dead heat so far. The Giants have the edge in the starting pitching and defense departments, and the Cardinals have the edge in the bullpen and offense departments.
The only way to break the tie is to consider what else these two teams have going for them.
One thing the Cardinals have to feel good about is that Game 7s are nothing new for them. They won last year's World Series with a win in Game 7, and there are still a handful of players on the team who were around when the Cardinals won Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Elimination games in general are something this Cardinals ballclub should be pretty used to by now. Their matchup against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS went the distance, with the Cardinals winning Game 5 courtesy of a four-run rally in the ninth inning. The Cards also won the NLDS in five games last season, beating the Philadelphia Phillies on the road thanks to Carpenter's complete-game shutout.
The Giants won their NLDS matchup against the Cincinnati Reds in five games, but it's been a while since they've found themselves in a Game 7. The last Game 7 the Giants played in was Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, and none of the players on this year's Giants team were around for that one.
And given what happened in that game, maybe that's a good thing.
The Giants may not have much experience with Game 7s, but what they do have is all the momentum in this series after winning Games 5 and 6 to stave off elimination. For that matter, these Giants have won a total of five straight games in which they could have been eliminated from the playoffs.
We know from what they did in the NLDS that the Giants know how to see what momentum they may have all the way to the end. The difference this time around is that they'll be looking to finish the job at home.
AT&T Park was as loud as it's ever been on Sunday night for Game 6. Expect more of the same for Game 7, much to the satisfaction of the home team.
The Grand Conclusion
Believe me, I know as well as anyone that the Cardinals are never out of any series. Heck, I even wrote an article about just how impossible it is to declare them to be dead even when it seems so incredibly obvious that they are dead.
Knowing this, the last thing I'm going to do is sit here and argue that the Cardinals are categorically doomed to lose Game 7. I know better.
That said, I'm fairly certain that sitting here and saying that the odds are against them isn't quite the same.
The tables have turned in favor of the Giants in this series. They've got all the momentum on their side. And if momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, then the Giants are in good shape there too. There's nobody they'd rather have on the mound for a Game 7 than Matt Cain.
If the general narrative of the series continues in Game 7, then the Giants will be in even better shape. If things stay the way they are, they can look forward to poor starting pitching, poor defense and poor at-bats on the part of their opponent.
We know from what the Cardinals did to the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS that they're dangerous no matter how low they seem to have sunk, but these Giants aren't going to fall for that same trap.
This whole postseason thing is nothing new for them, and they proved in 2010 that they're quite good at handling it.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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