While the Detroit Tigers are enjoying a six-day mini vacation after sweeping the New York Yankees for the American League pennant, both National League teams seem to almost enjoy taking the long way to get to the World Series.
Let's not be naïve. Certainly the Giants and Cardinals would both rather be resting up for the World Series than facing a must-win game, again. Still, here they both are, again.
The Giants should be offering free heart exams before Game 7 at AT&T Park as a service to what they've put their fans through this postseason. The pressure is almost too much to handle, watching the Giants fall down 0-2 at home in the National League Division Series to the Cincinnati Reds before coming back to win that series.
Let's not forget, the Giants were almost gone in the NLDS, winning Game 3 by the narrowest of margins, 2-1, in extra innings.
And after a relatively easy win in the penultimate game of the NLDS—if one can call Barry Zito lasting less than three innings and Tim Lincecum coming out of the bullpen for 4.1 innings to help secure an 8-3 win easy—the NLDS came down to one game, in Cincinnati, to go to the LCS.
The Giants sure made Game 5 interesting, too, holding on for dear life after building a nearly insurmountable six-run lead—more on that in a minute, Cardinals fans—ultimately pulling out the 6-4 win, despite the Reds sending six batters to the plate against converted closer Sergio Romo in the bottom of the ninth inning.
When the NLDS celebration started, Giants players and fans no longer cared how it happened. In fact, going down 0-2 and having to battle back probably made them appreciate the victory even more.
The same can be said for the Cardinals and their fans.
If St. Louis could qualify for the playoffs with a last-place record next season, they would figure out a way to do that, then put it all together in the playoffs for another epic run.
The Cardinals have a history of making things more difficult for themselves. Last season, St. Louis won the Wild Card after a total collapse by the Atlanta Braves, then took the opportunity in the playoffs and ran with it, winning another World Series for the self-proclaimed best fans in baseball.
To be totally fair, Cardinals fans have probably earned that moniker when you add this season's playoff insanity to what happened in 2011. (Though not the ones peppering St. Louis Post-Disptach columnist Bernie Miklasz's timeline after the Game 6 loss. Those fans are just jerks.)
This season's trudge through the playoffs had been as long as any team's playoff road to the World Series could possibly be. First, despite finishing six games behind Atlanta in the wild-card race, St. Louis took advantage of the new MLB rules and qualified for the postseason to face the Braves in a one-game, winner-take-all contest to determine which team would face the top-seeded Washington Nationals.
The Cardinals erased six games in the standings with just one win, taking the glorified MLB play-in game as a champagne-soaked springboard into the NLDS.
St. Louis lost the first game of the division series to Washington, but it bounced back with a huge win in Game 2 to avoid the same fate as the Giants—having to travel to the top seed's park facing three straight elimination games. St. Louis actually went on to blow out Washington in Game 3, setting up a clincher against the talented but inexperienced Nationals in a series that looked, by all accounts, pretty easy for the Cards.
In a pitching duel for the ages, the Cardinals managed just one run on three hits in Game 4 of the NLDS, losing on Jayson Werth's walk-off home run in the ninth inning that forced a decisive Game 5. Things suddenly seemed less easy.
Hey, remember earlier when we were talking about how the Giants nearly gave up an insurmountable six-run lead in Game 5 of their NLDS? Well, the Nationals actually did that. Perhaps more aptly put, the Cardinals did that to the Nationals, coming back from six runs down in the series clincher to win that NLDS in the most dramatic way possible.
The Cardinals weren't just down by six runs early, they were down by two runs with two outs in the ninth inning, facing Nationals fireballer Drew Storen with the season on the line.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. St. Louis battled to plate four runs in the ninth before Jason Motte came in to shut the door on the shell-shocked Nationals, clinching the series and getting the Cardinals packing for another trip to the NLCS.
Looking back, nothing has seemed easy for the Cardinals during the playoffs. They're winning playoff games on the bats of middle infielders and utility guys they couldn't even give away earlier in the season. They've dealt with injuries to both corner outfielders in the LCS alone. Much like last season, it has been a different hero in almost every game, with different surprising contributors along the way. Nothing has been easy, for sure.
The shame of this NLCS has been that as crazy as it was for both the Giants and the Cardinals to get there, the series itself hasn't been all that memorable.
The drama in a four-game sweep in the ALCS seemed to take all the headlines away from a more even series in the National League, even without Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter involved (or, as it were, not involved for very different reasons).
It also hasn't helped that the NLCS games haven't been all that dramatic. Four of the six games have been decided by five or more runs. Game 1 of the series was close after the Cardinals shot out to a 6-0 lead that was quickly closed to 6-4, but after plating four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Giants managed only three more baserunners in the entire game, two of which brought the game-tying run to the plate with two outs.
To say there was no drama in Game 1 would be unfair, but there wasn't a lot of it, other than Matt Holliday sliding into Marco Scutaro at second base to add a little more fire to the series.
Too bad that fire hasn't really shown up for both teams in the same game. The only other close game in this series was Game 3, which had all its drama washed away by an extended rain delay. The Cardinals won that matchup, 3-1, with Matt Carpenter coming off the bench early to be a hero. It was close for most of the game, sure, but after a three-and-a-half-hour rain delay soaked the buzz out of the contest, the Giants had little left against Motte, failing to even get a runner on base in the last two innings.
That was it from a drama standpoint, really.
There was some manufactured drama in the sense that St. Louis was up 3-1 at home with a chance to clinch before the Giants, again, battled back into a playoff series on the road. San Francisco won Game 5 with relative ease, riding the left arm of Zito while winning 5-0 to send the series back to the Bay Area.
Game 6 had all the makings of a classic, until it wasn't. The Giants shellacked Chris Carpenter early, plating five runs in the first two innings and Ryan Vogelsong kept St. Louis off balance en route to a 6-1, series-tying victory.
However—a big a however as there could be—for a series with very little drama, things are suddenly as dramatic as possible heading into Game 7.
For the Giants, a victory would complete another comeback, winning three straight must-win games in two straight must-win playoff series.
For the Cardinals, a victory would mean clinching three straight postseason matchups in the final game, all on the road.
Could it be that the previous six games were just a setup for the drama we should expect in Game 7? Could each team's playoff games that came before this pennant-clincher—11 for the Giants and a record 12 for the Cardinals—all have been a setup for the ultimate dramatic finish on Monday night?
Can we expect extra innings?! Certainly both fanbases will hope for a nice, easy, run-of-the-mill five-run victory to clinch the NL Pennant for their team—ho-hum, if a clinching game with the stakes this high could ever be ho-hum.
The rest of us have to be rooting for as much drama as possible. With the clinching drama both these teams have shown us already, this one has to be good.
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