2012 NLCS: 6 Players with the Most on the Line in Cardinals vs. Giants Game 7
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How a player performs in Game 7 of a playoff series—especially a league championship series—can leave lasting impressions on his career that he may never be able to shake.
Carlos Beltran is generally perceived as a choker for not taking the bat off his shoulder and watching an Adam Wainwright pitch go by him for the game-ending strike three in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Despite his performance in his past two playoff starts, Chris Carpenter is viewed as a postseason stud for winning two series clinchers last year during the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series championship run.
So, whose reputation among the Cardinals and San Francisco Giants stands to gain or lose the most based on his performance in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS Tuesday night (Oct. 22)?
One player who could have used some redemption in a do-or-die game is Matt Holliday, who's batting .190 in the NLCS and .223 in the overall postseason. But according to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, the lower back tightness that kept Holliday out of Game 6 may also sideline him for Game 7.
That still leaves plenty of other players who could be viewed as saving or sinking their team's season. Here are five key figures whose performance might determine the outcome of the NLCS.
Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
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No one is under a harsher spotlight in a big playoff game than the starting pitcher.
Those lamps are even more intense when a No. 1 starter hasn't performed up to expectations or capabilities thus far through the postseason.
Matt Cain came into the playoffs perceived as the Giants' ace starter with a 2.79 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and .222 opponents' batting average—which each ranked among the top five in the National League during the regular season.
In the playoffs, however, Cain has been adequate at best. After three starts, he's compiled a 4.67 ERA with 17 hits (four of them home runs) allowed in 17.1 innings. Cain has also struck out only 11 total batters in those three games.
San Francisco obviously needs Cain to pitch better than that in a decisive seventh game. Preferably, the guy who pitched a perfect game on June 13 shows up. Of course, the Cardinals are not the Houston Astros.
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
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Yadier Molina was arguably the Cardinals' most valuable player during the regular season and was a contender for the NL MVP award.
He hit .315 with an .874 OPS, 22 home runs and 76 RBI while playing his typically exceptional defense behind the plate.
During the postseason, however, the Cards' catcher has been rather un-MVP-like. He's batting .200 with a .516 OPS in 45 at-bats with one double and four RBI.
But Molina has been hitting better during the NLCS and might end up being a factor in a St. Louis Game 7 victory. In Games 5 and 6, he hit a combined 4-for-8 with two RBI. Unfortunately, Molina's success may have been short-lived, judging from his 0-for-4 in Game 6.
Which hitter is going to show up with the Cardinals' season on the line? Will Molina rise to the occasion and help his team to another World Series or take his hitting struggles into the offseason?
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
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In a previous article, I wrote about the possibility of Adam Wainwright becoming a Game 7 hero for the Cardinals by coming in from the bullpen to pitch as a reliever.
Tim Lincecum already performed a similar role in Game 1 of the NLCS. He threw two innings in relief of Madison Bumgarner, who couldn't make it through the fourth inning. Lincecum also came in from the bullpen in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, again in relief of Bumgarner, and in Game 4, chipping in with 4.1 innings.
Bumgarner won't be starting Game 7, so Lincecum won't have to relieve him this time around. Although, the left-hander could also pitch as a reliever on Monday and Lincecum could take over for him. So technically, Lincecum could once again pitch in relief of Bumgarner.
Using Lincecum as a reliever might be a good idea for Giants manager Bruce Bochy. He's done well in that role, compiling a 1.08 ERA in three appearances with nine strikeouts in 8.1 innings.
While Lincecum didn't pitch well against St. Louis while starting Game 4, giving up four runs and six hits in less than five innings, he gives Bochy a considerable weapon to use out of the bullpen.
Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals
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Allen Craig emerged as a future star during last year's postseason with four home runs, eight RBI and a 1.013 OPS.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny may have begun the 2012 season wondering where to play Craig after he recovered from offseason knee surgery, but Lance Berkman's frequent injuries took care of that roster crunch. Craig became the Cards' regular first baseman and hit .307 with 22 homers and 92 RBI.
However, he hasn't staged the same heroics during this year's playoffs so far. Craig is hitting .256 in the postseason with a .759 OPS. He's been even less productive in the NLCS, batting .150 with a .417 OPS with a double and two RBI.
In Game 7 of last year's World Series, Craig hit a home run. Can he come through with another big hit in a decisive seventh game for the Cardinals?
Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
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Hunter Pence did get a hit in Game 6 of the NLCS, but he struck out in his other three at-bats.
Despite hitting in a home run in Game 4 of the series, Pence has really been struggling to produce some offense for the Giants. He's batting .130 (3-for-23) with a .428 OPS. In the postseason, Pence is hitting .163 with a .414 OPS with only one extra-base hit.
Though Pence likely won't shoulder the majority of the blame if the Giants lose the NLCS, it could be argued that he hasn't provided the run production San Francisco was hoping for when he was acquired before the July 31 trade deadline. In 248 plate appearances with the Giants, he batted .219 with seven home runs and 45 RBI.
But maybe Kyle Lohse is exactly who Pence needs to see right now. Pence has faced Lohse in 52 plate appearances, tied for the most against any pitcher during his career. He's batting. 280 (14-for-50) with two doubles, a triple and two RBI.
That's not owning Lohse by any means, but there is a record of some success there. That might give Pence some hope.
David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals
David Freese was the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series for the Cardinals last year. If that doesn't make him a postseason hero, I'm not sure what else can.
In 18 playoff games, Freese batted .397 (25-for-63) with eight doubles, five home runs and 21 RBI. He slugged .794 and his OPS for the postseason was 1.258.
Freese has been productive during this postseason, batting .295 with an .811 OPS, but nowhere near the star he was last year. Perhaps that should have been expected. Who could keep up that level of production against top playoff competition?
In the 2012 NLCS, Freese is hitting .217 with a .652 OPS, one home run and two RBI. He's also struck out six times in 23 at-bats. The Cardinals could use someone—anyone—besides Carlos Beltran and rookie Matt Carpenter to emerge as an offensive star in the series clincher.
Game 7 would be an ideal time for Freese to rediscover some of that 2011 postseason magic.
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