ST. LOUIS -- And so Game 5 in this National League Championship Series will begin Friday night (8:07 p.m. ET, ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com) with the Giants taking the field battling against a sense of inevitability that can settle over a series when a team reaches an elimination game in the early going.
How much do they feel it? Not much, if you believe what they were saying after Thursday's 8-3 loss in Game 4 to go down three games to one. It ain't over 'til it's over. We'll treat it like another game. Win 'em one at a time. We've done it before. And there is truth in those sentiments. Baseball players are built to ignore the urgency of predicaments such as this, to stare down their dwindling margin for error and play hell-bent-for-leather until the final out in the final inning of the final game is made.
That's how comebacks happen, and we've seen enough of those in recent seasons and recent weeks to allow for any eventuality, including a three-game San Francisco winning streak that can start Friday and take the Giants into the World Series. Because they're right: The Giants have done it before. They're the same team that came back from a two-games-to-none deficit on the road, winning three straight in Cincinnati in the best-of-five division series last week.
And so Angel Pagan's brave stance in a subdued San Francisco clubhouse late Thursday isn't to be dismissed out of hand.
"If we lose tomorrow, we go home, and we're not ready for that," Pagan said. "We saw it in
Cincinnati. We had our backs against the wall there, too. We can do this. We believe we can do this. We're going to come back tomorrow and play strong."
Yes, baseball players are built to believe. But they're also built to make certain they don't give public voice to whatever doubts or desperation they really do feel, regardless of the gravity of the situation. No signs of weakness allowed. So maybe it's worth noting that the tone of Pagan's ready reference Thursday night to the division series comeback against the Reds had changed from his postgame comments after Game 1 of the NLCS last Sunday, also a San Francisco loss.
Back then, he said, "We can't go on that. Whatever happened in Cincinnati has already happened. That's been played already."
The Cincinnati precedent will hover over this NLCS from now until it ends, whether that happens Friday at Busch Stadium or back in San Francisco for Games 6 (Sunday) and 7 (Monday) if it goes that far. It's what the Cardinals will use to battle the sense of complacency that might seep into their subconscious now that they're one win away from a World Series berth and have three games of house money with which to play to get it.
They, too, are programmed to say the right things about the state of the series. We assume nothing. We saw what they did against the Reds. We've got to keep our guard up. And there's truth in those comments, too. St. Louis, of all teams, ought to know about playing for keeps until the final out of the final inning. Witness their own stunning comebacks against the Nationals in the division series last week and against the Rangers in the last two games of the World Series last October.
They've been where the Giants are now and lived to tell the tale.
"We're not taking the last game to get into the World Series for granted," said Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday. "The Giants have proven they're a great team, and with their backs against the wall came back against the Reds."
Into the cauldron of this setup -- one team with wiggle room, the other in the tightest of spots -- step a pair of starting pitchers for whom expectations of success come with no guarantees.
The Giants send Barry Zito to the mound to save their day; and yes, Zito won 15 games this year, including his last seven regular-season decisions and his last five regular-season starts. But he also lasted only 2T innings in his only other 2012 postseason appearance last week against Cincinnati, and he enjoyed the type of healthy run support (4.69 runs per game, among the top 10 in the National League) during the regular season that the Giants haven't been providing to any of their pitchers very often in these playoffs.
The key for Zito over the past two months of the regular season was the success of his curveball, but it let him down in the playoff start against the Reds. According to ESPN Stats & Information, three of the four hits Zito gave up last week came on his curveball, including a home run.
Should the start against the Reds -- he allowed only two runs but walked four and gave up four hits in those 2T innings -- be of concern? Hard to tell, really, from the way Zito presents it a week later.
"I don't think it was so much mechanical/mental," he said. "I think it was just more about nitpicking on the corners too much, and instead of just being aggressive. I'm going to go out there and be aggressive tomorrow and let my defense work for me."
St. Louis will give the ball to Lance Lynn, who brings his own unhappy previous outing into what could be the series-clincher for the Cardinals. Lynn started Game 1 of the NLCS, a St. Louis win, but didn't make it out of a fourth inning in which San Francisco scored all four of its runs in a 6-4 loss.
Like Zito, he won big during the regular season (18-7, 3.78) but hasn't exactly consistently wowed 'em in St. Louis since the playoffs began. In three relief appearances against Washington in the division series, he went 1-1 with an 8.10 ERA.
So should that recent history be a concern? What, Lynn was asked Thursday, does he need to do differently this time around?
"Not give four straight two-out hits up in one inning," he said.
OK. Not very helpful. Maybe his catcher, Yadier Molina, can help. What should Lynn do differently Friday night?
"Pitch better," Molina said. "Try to make better pitches."
One more try. This one from Chris Carpenter, one of Lynn's mentors on the Cardinals and the loser in Game 2 in the NLCS.
"Lance has the ability to dominate a game. No question about it," Carpenter said. "He was doing that at the beginning of the game the last time out. But you get to a situation where you have to start pitching a little bit, and he stuck to just throwing for a little while. And he couldn't get his breaking ball going. He's going to have to do that to be successful, no matter if it's now or anytime during the year. You have to be able to throw a secondary pitch for a strike, and he wasn't able to do that the last time. But I think he'll be just fine coming out [Friday] night."
The last word on Lynn? It comes from the Giants' Pagan, whose Thursday night defiance in the face of San Francisco's current distress had direct application to the Cardinals' starter.
"He's going to have to shut us down tomorrow," Pagan said. "We're coming to get him."