SAN FRANCISCO -- So here's something that surprised Brandon Belt in Game 1 of the NLCS on Monday night: Nobody crossed the plate after the fourth inning.
"I was for sure we were probably going to score some more runs. Or they were going to score some more runs. It's hard to believe it ended up 6-4," Belt, the Giants' first baseman, said.
Four runs for St. Louis in the top of the fourth, to go up 6-0.
Four runs for San Francisco in the bottom the fourth, to draw to within two.
Two total base runners for the Cardinals in innings five through nine.
Five total base runners for the Giants in innings five through nine.
Much of the story of Game 1 is told in the tales of spotty starting pitching (perhaps to be expected in the first game after exhausting down-to-the-wire finishes in the five-game division series dramas that both teams survived to get here) in the early going. And some of the story of Game 1 is told in the fast and furious shows of offensive muscle in the middle stages -- home runs from David Freese and Carlos Beltran; extra-base hits from Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford. But a case can be made for the ends of this story, too -- bullpen work on both sides that included playing the matchup game as early as the fifth when St. Louis manager Mike Matheny burned his only left-hander, Marc Rzepczynski, for one batter.
Rzepczynski coaxed a fly ball to center out of Belt -- lefty versus lefty -- to end the fifth.
"That was the spot in the lineup we were able to use him." Matheny said. "There are a couple of spots in the top [of the Giants' batting order], but that situation kind of leaned toward using 'Zep.' He's done a nice job. He finished strong. There's some ups and downs during the season, but he's throwing the ball well, and that's good timing for us."
From there, the Cardinals' 'pen was a series of shutdowns. Trevor Rosenthal for four batters (including a walk) in the sixth. Edward Mujica for three straight swinging strikeouts (Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, hitters Nos. 2, 3 and 4) in the seventh. A perfect eighth from Mitchell Boggs. A ninth-inning save from Jason Motte, who allowed only Angel Pagan's two-out single.
"They've got a lot of hard throwers," Belt said. "They get a lot of movement on the ball. They can keep you off-balance. They can make you chase their pitch. So I think the best thing to do is just go up there with a plan and stick to it. Make them come in your zone."
Good thinkin'. But those pitches never made it to the zone.
As quickly as the Giants had made a game of it with their four-run rally in the fourth, the Cardinals' bullpen just as quickly snuffed out that hope. Mujica's inning of work in the seventh had absolutely nothing to do with a lead change, but his three strikeouts were impressive enough for him to be named the winning pitcher.
"Their bullpen is pretty tough," Pagan said. "That's why we have to score some runs against their starters, so we don't have to face the nasty guys."
The Cardinals, of course, might echo the sentiment. Headlined by Tim Lincecum, baseball's newest star reliever, the Giants' 'pen was, if anything, even more impressive. Jeremy Affeldt (a perfect seventh), Santiago Casilla (an eighth that would have been perfect but for Sandoval's throwing error) and Jose Mijares (a perfect ninth) followed.
Lincecum, he of consecutive Cy Young Awards (2008 and '09) and until this year one of the most dominant starters in the game, has now made three appearances thus far in the 2012 postseason, and all have been in relief. On Monday, he went two innings and faced the minimum of six batters, allowing a walk to Allen Craig but inducing a double play from Freese.
His days in the bullpen, though, likely are over for now. He has been so good so far in October -- remember, he went 4 1/3 innings in relief against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 4 of the division series, giving up two hits and one run with six strikeouts for the win -- and San Francisco's starters have been so inconsistent so far in their first six playoff games that Giants manager Bruce Bochy's hand is being forced.
Lincecum threw only 24 pitches (12 strikes) on Monday. There's likely a very good reason Bochy didn't let him go back out for a third inning. That reason? Thursday night in St. Louis.
"He only threw two innings, and he was pretty efficient," Bochy said. "We still have our options there. He did a great job. We got within two and he kept us there. He gave us a chance to come back. He's still available if we want in Game 4."