Commentary

Playoff pressure doesn't faze Cards

The heat is on in the NLCS, and that's just the way St. Louis seems to like it

Updated: October 21, 2012, 3:04 AM ET
By Molly Knight | ESPN The Magazine

SAN FRANCISCO -- The St. Louis Cardinals didn't want to come back here.

They didn't want to board another long flight -- their third in seven days -- and give these pesky San Francisco Giants another chance to fight back from the ropes.

They didn't want to have take the field again in front of another relentless and rowdy San Francisco crowd.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
AP Photo/Alex BrandonWhat, me worry? Chris Carpenter has pitched in enough big games not to let Sunday's start bother him.

And they certainly didn't want to face Ryan Vogelsong again, the journeyman pitcher turned postseason wizard who flummoxed them in Game 2, holding them to one run on four hits in seven innings of a 7-1 Giants win.

But despite all that, if recent history is any indication, the Cards are one loss closer to having the Giants right where they want them in this National League Championship Series as Game 6 unfolds on Sunday night (7:30 ET, ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com).

Including the wild-card play-in game earlier this October, St. Louis has won the past five playoff rounds in which they've participated, dating back to the first round of the last season. In four of the five games in which they eliminated other teams, they were also facing extinction themselves.

Which begs the question: Does St. Louis need to be on the brink of going home in order to deliver the knockout blow?

"I don't think so," said Chris Carpenter, who will start for the Cardinals in Game 6. "I think knowing we have to win one game, it doesn't matter if you're on the road or what game it is. It's the first one to win four games, and hopefully we can do that tomorrow."

The Cardinals have to feel pretty good about handing the ball to Carpenter at this point in the series. With nine full seasons in St. Louis under his belt, the 6-foot-6 Carpenter is the club's longest tenured player. He's also one of the best pitchers in team history, with a Cy Young in his trophy case and two additional top-three finishes on his resume.

Carpenter, 37, has plenty of big-game experience, too. He out-dueled Roy Halladay and shut out the Phillies 1-0 in the deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series last season, then gave up two runs in six innings in the World Series Game 7 clincher against the Rangers.

But this, of course, is a different Chris Carpenter. This is the Chris Carpenter who, back in June, allowed doctors to remove two neck muscles and the top rib under his right collarbone with "a pair of hedge-clipping-looking things" to relieve pressure on a bundle of nerves responsible for giving him feeling from his pitching shoulder down to his fingertips. Having returned in late September, Carpenter admits he's still finding his rhythm. While he said Saturday there's "no question" his body isn't where he wants it to be yet, manager Mike Matheny expressed confidence in his guy.

[+] EnlargeRyan Vogelsong
AP Photo/Ben MargotThis isn't exactly what St. Louis had in mind: Facing Ryan Vogelsong again.

"We know Chris Carpenter is going to do something special every time he gets out there," Matheny said. "Now if he has his good stuff, it's going to be fun to watch."

Carpenter certainly had his good stuff in his lone start during St. Louis' division series against Washington, tossing 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in the Cardinals' 8-0 Game 3 win. But he was mediocre in his Game 2 start in the NLCS, giving up five runs (two earned) in four innings, easily bettered by Vogelsong.

"The last time out, my stuff went backward a little bit," Carpenter said. "My command wasn't very good. I was trying everything I could to get outs, but [it] just unfortunately didn't work. I had some nice work in between that start and this start, and I feel good and I'm looking forward to going back out there."

The Giants feel pretty good about their starter, too. Vogelsong was especially stingy at home this season, posting a 2.86 ERA in 94 1/3 innings -- a full point lower than his road ERA, and he has been the club's most consistent starter of late.

"I'm sure Carpenter is going to be on top of his game, as always, so it's going to be an interesting game," Vogelsong said. "I'm going to have to be sharp because, with him on the mound, one run can lose a game for you. I'm going to have to be ready."

After a superb Game 5 outing from Barry Zito in St. Louis on Friday kept the Giants' season alive, they return to San Francisco down 3 games to 2, needing to win both Sunday and Monday (Game 7, if necessary) to advance to the World Series. Should Vogelsong beat Carpenter again Sunday night, Monday will feature a rematch of the clubs' aces, Matt Cain and Kyle Lohse, who faced each other in Game 3, a 3-1 St. Louis win.

[+] EnlargeMike Matheny
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsMike Matheny knows the Giants were never going to go quietly.

But the Giants have to get there first.

Buoyed by the Twitter-trending topic success of #RallyZito on Friday night, Giants fans had already begun tweeting #RallyVogey and #RallyEnchiladas on Saturday night, the latter a nod to Vogelsong's penchant for eating chicken enchiladas on nights before he starts.

While both teams have enjoyed their share of rallies this October, the drama seems to be taking a physical and emotional toll. Only a couple of Cardinals who needed extra hitting or treatment -- injured slugger Carlos Beltran was one -- were required to work out at AT&T Park on Saturday. Matheny told everyone else to hang back at the hotel and catch up on their rest. Giants' manager Bruce Bochy gave his entire team the day off.

The winner of this series will face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Detroit has already been off since Thursday, and some would argue they swept the hapless New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series in their sleep.

Neither skipper will be surprised if the NLCS goes seven.

"They aren't going to go away and neither are we," Matheny said. "And we knew that going into this thing. As soon as we won a couple of games at home, there was nobody in there for a second under the belief that this was going to be a team that was going to just roll over."

Vogelsong said this Giants team has a knack for fighting back.

"Everyone counted us out four or five times this year already," he said. "First when [closer Brian] Wilson went down. People said we couldn't do it. Then we lost Melky [Cabrera]. People said we couldn't do it. The Dodgers made the big trade and people said we weren't going to do it. We go down two to Cincinnati [in the NLDS], they said we're not going to do it. We draw the confidence that it's not over until the last out is made."

Though the Cardinals seem to perform best with a guillotine ready to drop on their necks, Carpenter says his club would prefer to spare the drama and end this series on Sunday night.

"No question, we want to win it as soon as we can," Carpenter said. "We wanted to do it last night. But, again, we have to get one win before they get two. If it's not tomorrow night, we'll come in and do it again."