Commentary

Cain holds key to rest of NLCS

The direction of the Giants-Cards series depends on S.F.'s Game 3 starter

Updated: October 16, 2012, 6:24 PM ET
By Molly Knight | ESPN The Magazine

Two games, 18 runs, 32 hits, and a takeout slide heard 'round the world, and we haven't even seen the best player of the NLCS yet.

The rest of the series hinges on what he does.

When Matt Cain takes the mound for the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 in St. Louis on Wednesday night, he'll bring with him San Francisco's best chance to seize control of this seven-game series. A win would steal home-field advantage back from the Cardinals. A loss would put the Giants down 2-1 on the road with an uncertain rotation heading into Games 4 and 5.

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Andrew Weber/US PresswireCain's NLDS performance was subpar, but he has a chance to redeem himself in Game 3.

"It's definitely a huge game for us, but we feel really strong with [Cain] going out there," said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt. "We've got momentum on our side right now, and I think it's important that we go in there and keep in that way."

It's already been a dream season for Cain, and he can still make it more memorable.

In April, the 28-year-old signed a six-year, $127.5 million dollar contract that made him the highest-paid right-handed pitcher in baseball. He responded appropriately, tossing a perfect game in June and posting career bests in wins (16), ERA (2.79) and strikeouts (193). Crucially, he also ascended the ladder to undisputed team ace in the midst of two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum's maddening struggles. Cain anchored the Giants' run to the NL West crown down the stretch, too, going 6-0 in his final 10 starts.

But Cain's performance was mediocre in the NLDS against the Reds, as he gave up three runs in 5 innings in a Game 1 loss and another three runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 5.

In a bit of a disconcerting twist for San Francisco, Cain also served up three home runs overall in those two games. That stat follows a bad trend. Though Cain gave up the exact same number of hits this season as he did last year (177), he surrendered only nine home runs in 2011. That number more than doubled to 21 in 2012. He was also mortal in two regular-season starts against the Cardinals this year, giving up four runs in six innings back in June, and five runs in 5 2/3 innings in August. And he won't have the friendly confines of AT&T Park to work with Wednesday night -- he had a 2.03 ERA at home this season, 3.56 on the road.

So the Cardinals can feel good about their chances of getting to Cain, and they can feel pretty good about their Game 3 starter, too.

Veteran Kyle Lohse enjoyed the best season of his 12-year career, going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. His timing was impeccable: He'll be a free agent in November. "We're excited with Lohsie getting the ball," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "He's been awesome for us all year. He's real confident right now, and hopefully he takes all his pitches and spots up and we can score some runs for him."

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Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireLohse has been the Cardinals' most reliable starter the last two years.

If this series goes seven, Cain and Lohse would also square off in the finale back in San Francisco on Monday.

But a couple other storylines need to play out between now and then. First, the Giants will have to ascertain the fate of Marco Scutaro, their spark-plug second baseman who was clobbered in Game 2 by a takeout slide from Matt Holliday. X-rays taken on Scutaro's injured right hip after the game were negative. He was set to undergo an MRI on Tuesday.

Then there's the issue of Tim Lincecum. While Giants manager Bruce Bochy wouldn't commit to starting his former ace -- who was demoted to the bullpen at the start of the postseason -- in Game 4 in St. Louis, he did say Monday he was leaning toward it. That would put Barry Zito in line to start Game 5 -- also on the road -- and knock Madison Bumgarner, the struggling young left-hander, out of the rotation entirely.

As for the Cardinals, they are glad to get a chance to sleep in their own beds, having been on the road since Game 3 of the NLDS. They'll also get a three-day respite from the raucous crowds in San Francisco that only seemed to get louder as Games 1 and 2 went on. "These people are crazy," said St. Louis reliever Jason Motte. "They come out and they're into every game, every pitch, everything."

Motte's bullpen mate Edward Mujica says he had a laugh over Giants fans yelling at him in Spanish to go back to the minors. "The bullpen is next to the fans in the right-field line," said Mujica. "It's crazy to go out there and just warm up because you're trying to concentrate and those people are yelling at you."

Giants catcher Buster Posey says that as much as he loves playing at AT&T in front of those crazy fans, he wouldn't be sad if Game 2 were San Francisco's final home game until the World Series. "I'd love to win the next three and not have to come back," said Posey.

For that to be even a remote possibility, it all starts with Cain.