Cardinals vs. Giants: Keys for Each Team to Win NLCS Game 5
The San Francisco Giants are one win away from the World Series.
For the third time in the last five years, the Giants have defied the odds and will have a chance to close out the National League Championship Series Thursday night in Game 5 at AT&T Park.
But the St. Louis Cardinals want to make sure that the next flight the Giants take to Missouri won't be to Kansas City for a World Series date with the Royals. Instead, the Cardinals are looking to send this series back to St. Louis, and they will put their season in the right hand of Adam Wainwright.
Although he has performed like anything but an ace so far this postseason, Wainwright is still the best option on the mound for St. Louis. The problem for the Cardinals is that San Francisco will also be trotting out its best option in southpaw Madison Bumgarner, who dominated the Redbirds in Game 1 of this series.
Read on to find out what each team must do in order to emerge victorious in Game 5.
Wainwright Must Be Efficient
Adam Wainwright will need to attack the strike zone and eat innings for the Cardinals to have a realistic shot at sending this series back to Missouri.
If he's unable to do so, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is going to have a major problem. The St. Louis skipper managed last night's Game 4 as if it were a must-win situation, removing starting pitcher Shelby Miller in the fourth inning after just 65 pitches in order to take advantage of a favorable matchup.
This decision led to heavy usage of the Cardinals bullpen, which was ultimately unable to protect a one-run lead. Five relievers saw action last night, and none of them threw fewer than 10 pitches. They will all probably be available tonight, but St. Louis would be better served if Wainwright went deep into the game like he did for the majority of the regular season.
In Game 1 of both the National League Division Series and NLCS, the veteran right-hander did not make it through the fifth inning.
If the Cardinals ever needed a bounce-back performance from their ace after two subpar outings so far in October, Game 5 would be the perfect time for it.
Don't Stall the Small Ball
For the San Francisco Giants, Game 5 will be about rolling with the small-ball approach that has come to define their postseason success.
Bruce Bochy's bunch won't hit home runs, but it'll hit the ball and force opposing pitchers to hit their targets. Patient at-bats and constant contact at the plate is how San Francisco musters enough offense to win games in October.
Take the sixth inning of Game 4, for example. The Giants began the inning with a walk, a single and a sacrifice bunt. Three batters later, they had scored three runs with only two balls leaving the infield. Both were singles.
Going back five games, San Francisco has scored 10 runs on swings that did not result in hits. That's manufacturing runs at its finest. That's small ball. That's the Giants.
As long as they keep applying pressure on the defense and grinding down St. Louis' pitching, the Giants will put themselves in a good position to win the National League pennant in front of their home fans Thursday night.
Defense Wins Championships
It's a sports adage that has become cliche. But aside from pitching, defense is what separates the contenders from the pretenders in postseason baseball.
Defense is also the primary way to thwart small ball, and the Cardinals have a bit of work to do in that department.
The Cardinals' fielding issues in San Francisco began during the first inning of Game 3, when right fielder Randal Grichuk misplayed a Travis Ishikawa fly ball that resulted in a bases-clearing double. Nine innings later, relief pitcher Randy Choate threw away Gregor Blanco's sacrifice bunt—small-ball alert—allowing the Giants to score the winning run.
The culprit in Game 4 was Matt Adams. After a sacrifice bunt—small-ball alert—moved runners to second and third, Blanco hit a grounder to first. The lumbering Adams had trouble fielding and throwing the ball home in one motion, and his hesitation allowed San Francisco to tie the game.
The next batter was Joe Panik, who smashed another grounder right back to Adams. The big first baseman failed to check the runner at third and instead attempted an ill-advised double play that allowed the Giants to take a lead they would not relinquish.
Teams that try to outthink small ball typically get burned by it. St. Louis fielders will need to be ready for all situations Thursday in Game 5, but they must take only what the game gives them.
Bumgarner's Time to Shine
While the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright hasn't looked much like an ace throughout October, that hasn't been the case for San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner.
The talented left-hander will toe the rubber on regular rest tonight in Game 5, five days after a dominating opening act in St. Louis last Friday. Bumgarner outdueled Wainwright in Game 1, pitching 7.2 innings of shutout baseball while striking out seven and allowing just four hits in the Giants' 3-0 victory.
A similar outing tonight from Bumgarner would send San Francisco to its third World Series in the past five years. It's a dream scenario for the Giants: their best pitcher on the mound in the most important game of the season. Nobody on Bruce Bochy's club wants to go back to St. Louis, where the Cardinals will have the backing of a raucous home crowd.
But Bumgarner isn't concerning himself with the possibility of a Game 6 in Missouri.
"If you start thinking about all this other stuff, pretty soon you forget what you're going out there to do," he said, per Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News.
With a 0.76 ERA in 23.2 innings pitched this postseason, there may be little reason for the Giants to worry about a Game 6, either.
The Cardinals know the statistics, and they're not pretty.
Over the course of NLCS history, 70 teams have fallen into a 3-1 hole like the one caving in around St. Louis. Of those 70, only 10 have come back to win the series. That's 14 percent.
However, the Cardinals should not dwell on that number, nor should they cringe at the fact that the four previous St. Louis teams that dealt with the current predicament are not part of that 14 percent.
Rather, they should look across the field and view the Giants not as an imminent World Series team, but as a beacon of hope. After all, it was just two years ago that the Cardinals built a 3-1 lead over these same Giants in the NLCS, only to drop the next three games and lose the series.
Although it is a painful memory for the Cardinals, it's a reminder that coming back from a 3-1 deficit can be done. If they can shock a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw twice in one series, then maybe St. Louis has just enough magic left to give the Giants a taste of their own medicine and avenge the 2012 collapse.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise linked/noted.