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This series wasn't supposed to happen, not after the San Francisco Giants lost their first two games at home in the NL Division Series against Cincinnati, and certainly not after the St. Louis Cardinals fell behind 6-0 after three innings in Game 5 of their NLDS against the Nationals.
The Giants became the second team in the wild-card era (1995-present) to win a five-game series after losing the first two games at home. And the Cardinals became the first team in postseason history to win a winner-take-all game after trailing by six runs. So here it is, a fascinating matchup between two teams that come in riding serious momentum.
Here are five questions.
For the second year in a row, the Cardinals twice were one strike away from elimination, and miraculously found a way to win. This time they erased a 6-0 lead after three innings in Washington, then scored four times in the ninth to join the 1992 Braves as the only teams in postseason history to overcome a multi-run deficit in the ninth to win a winner-take-all game. After the game, Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse, drenched in champagne, said, "This team doesn't know when it should be over. We should be packing our bags right now; we should be going home. But not this team. This team is going to San Francisco.''
It will hurt, no doubt. Cain is their ace, and until this postseason, he had not allowed an earned run in his postseason career, covering 21 1/3 innings. The Giants could start Cain in Game 2, but it would be on short rest, an option that manager Bruce Bochy chose not to exercise in the LDS. Madison Bumgarner is an able stand-in for Game 1. Remember how well he pitched in the 2010 postseason, and remember when Cain asked him that year before a start, "Aren't you nervous?'' and Bumgarner said, "I don't get nervous"? Cardinals fans should be a little nervous about their starting rotation for this series given that it isn't lined up as nicely as they would like. Lance Lynn, who gave up a walk-off home run to Jayson Werth in relief in Game 4 of the LDS, will start Game 1. After that, it's unsettled.
The world. He made three starts in late September and didn't win any of them, but according to teammate Matt Holliday, "He got better in each one. In the third start, he was throwing his sinker and cutter in the low 90s. That's pretty good.'' Then Carpenter threw 5 2/3 shutout innings to win Game 3 of the NLDS against the Nationals. "He had a rib taken out of his body three months ago, and we all said, 'See you next spring,''' Lohse said. "Then he told me his plan to make it back, and I said, 'Sure, bud.' Not only did he make it back, he did what he did [in Game 3]. We've learned to never, ever doubt Chris Carpenter.'' Said manager Mike Matheny, "He is a warrior. He blows me away.'' Carpenter is now 10-2 in his career in the postseason. Curt Schilling (11-2) is the only pitcher in history with a higher winning percentage in the postseason (minimum of 10 decisions). Carpenter would be on short rest pitching Game 2 on Monday.
He came out of the bullpen in the LDS against Cincinnati and threw 6 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and one run; he struck out eight and didn't walk a batter. One scout said, "That's the best I've seen him throw all year.'' Lincecum likely will start in this series. He could be the No. 2 starter, following Cain, or the No. 4 starter. Bochy has plenty of options. Ryan Vogelsong could start Game 2 or Game 4. Barry Zito is also available. One position player who won't be available is outfielder Melky Cabrera. He is eligible to return from his 50-game suspension for PED use, but the Giants decided not to activate him. It would take too much time to get him ready to play in a postseason game, but more importantly, he let his team down with his regrettable decision. Then he just left the team without addressing his teammates, and without apologizing. After that, you sensed the Giants were determined to win it without him, and now here they are in the NLCS.
It has no Albert Pujols and no Lance Berkman, but the Cardinals still finished second in the league in runs scored this year. Against the Nationals in the NLDS, they scored 32 runs in five games. They are a different -- and better -- offensive team now than they were earlier in the year because first baseman Allen Craig is healthy (.400 average with runners in scoring position, 92 RBIs in 469 at-bats) and Carlos Beltran is back in the playoffs. His on-base percentage is the highest of any player in postseason history (minimum of 100 plate appearances). But the big difference in the Cardinals down the stretch and in October is the offense provided by their new double-play combination, second baseman Daniel Descalso and rookie shortstop Pete Kozma. Descalso, who went from utility player to everyday player in mid-August, took more good swings than any Cardinal in the LDS against the Nationals; his two-out, two-run single in the ninth inning in Game 5 tied the score. Kozma, who was recalled Aug. 31 by the Cardinals, hit .333 in September. "I don't know where we would be right now without him down the stretch,'' Matheny said. In Game 5, Kozma followed Descalso's game-tying single with a two-run single that made the score 9-7. He became the first rookie in 88 years to get a game-winning RBI in a winner-take-all postseason game. Now the Cardinals have no holes in their lineup, much like the end of the 2011 season.
The pick: Cardinals in seven.