Commentary

A World Series ticket up for grabs

Cards, Giants need more than character, resiliency to win Game 7 of NLCS

Updated: October 22, 2012, 4:36 PM ET
By Michael Knisley | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- We've heard a lot of talk talk talk in this postseason about resiliency, about character, about that good old-fashioned never-give-up attitude that keeps a team alive when it has all but flat-lined in a game or a series. And we'll hear more of it up until, and even after, we get a winner in Monday night's Game 7 of the National League Championship Series (8:07 p.m. ET, ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com).

And, probably, there's something to it. How do you dismiss the recent playoff history of the Cardinals, left for dead in Washington in Game 5 of the division series two weeks ago but still playing on, left for dead (several times) in St. Louis in Game 6 of the World Series last October but re-energized to survive and reach a Game 7 and win a world championship? How in good conscience do you overlook the recent playoff history of the Giants, who've now won five straight games in which a loss would have eliminated them from the postseason, including Sunday night's 6-1 victory over St. Louis in Game 6 of the NLCS?

Nice work from both clubs, to be sure, to show the backbone to get to this point against some formidable odds.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
Elsa/Getty Images The Giants' Matt Cain pitched into the seventh inning of Game 3, but allowed a two-run homer in the third.

But the thing is, making guesses about Game 7 based on mettle, or spunk, or tenacity, or character is an impossible riddle, a waste of good breath in this case, if for no other reason than in a matchup of these two teams, it's a wash. They've both shown enough intestinal fortitude to make believers out of anybody. (And speaking of a wash, keep an eye on the San Francisco weather on Monday. Late Sunday, the forecast called for lots of wet stuff -- an 80 percent chance of rain.)

So … one very pithy comment from one of the principals about the way the Cardinals and the Giants are both 11th-hour teams in this 11th-hour game, and we'll move on.

"That's just what we do," said Adam Wainwright, who started and won Game 4 for St. Louis and will be available out of the bullpen if necessary in Game 7. "We were just saying that in [the clubhouse] a minute ago. For whatever reason, we always make it harder than it needs to be. And if you look back on it and ask, 'Why did we make it as hard as we did?' it's OK, as long as you win. It's a fun argument to have … if you win. It's great TV. TV's got to love this. Fans in St. Louis probably have no fingernails left.

"And in San Francisco, too. I saw a sign behind the dugout [Sunday]. It was a Giants' fan. It said, 'Who likes being tortured more than us? Nobody.' And I'd say St. Louis fans could argue that."

So now with character accounted for, the outcome of Game 7 is more likely to be determined by other factors, by baseball factors. Character won't matter so much when, say, Carlos Beltran steps into the batter's box against Matt Cain, who gets his second NLCS start for San Francisco on Monday. Character won't necessarily be the difference when, say, Cardinals Game 7 starter Kyle Lohse tries to put a 3-2 pitch in a place where Hunter Pence's swing isn't.

But while it won't be a matter of character that determines, say, whether Matt Holliday is in the St. Louis lineup, it will be a matter of backbone. Literally. Holliday was scratched from Game 6 at the last minute because of tightness in his lower back, and the status on Monday is uncertain for the Cardinals left fielder and 3-hole hitter who accounted for 27 home runs and 102 RBIs during the regular season. St. Louis can use his offense; playing short-handed on Sunday, it managed just five hits and one late, meaningless run. Through six games, the Cardinals have a team batting average of .219.

Against Cain on Monday, hits and runs aren't likely to be any easier for St. Louis than they were against Ryan Vogelsong on Sunday or, for that matter, against Barry Zito in Game 5 on Friday night in St. Louis, a 5-0 San Francisco win. Cain took the loss in his other NLCS start -- Game 3, another matchup with Lohse -- but he pitched well, going 6 2/3 innings, allowing six hits, three runs and one big mistake: a third-inning groover that Matt Carpenter knocked over the right-field wall in Busch Stadium to put St. Louis up 2-0 in an eventual 3-1 win.

"I felt like I probably had the best command I've had out of the three [postseason] starts the other day against the Cardinals," Cain said. "It took me a while to settle in in the first game against the Reds [5 2/3 IP, 5 hits, 3 runs and a win]. It was the energy and everything going. I wasn't really overdoing anything, but it was like the nerves and kind of being overhyped and stuff like that. But I felt like the other day was the best stuff that I had, and I'll try to be able to take that into tomorrow."

Pete Kozma, the Cardinals' shortstop, had one of those six hits against Cain in Game 3, a single to center. Under the circumstances, Kozma knows enough about Cain's fastball and slider to be wary.

"He does the same thing Vogelsong does," he said. "It's just a matter of whether we're hitting it or not."

Cain, as it happens, was the starting and winning pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game back in July, a game won by the NL on the strength of Cain's two innings of one-hit scoreless pitching, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval's bases-loaded triple in the first inning, and now-inactive Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera's two hits, two runs and one home run, which earned him the All-Star MVP.

That win gave the National League the home-field advantage for the World Series. Now, Cain and Sandoval are playing in Game 7 on Monday for the right to open the Series on Wednesday night in their own AT&T Park. Ironically, the losing pitcher -- who gave up Sandoval's triple -- in the All-Star Game was Detroit's Justin Verlander, likely to be the starter in Game 1 of the Series.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lohse
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Cardinals' Kyle Lohse allowed 12 baserunners (seven hits, five walks) in Game 3 of the NLCS, a 3-1 St. Louis victory.

In the earlier NLCS matchup between the Game 7 starters, Lohse got the win for St. Louis, but it was an odd outing for allowing only the one run. He walked five and gave up seven hits, never retiring the side in order in his 5 2/3 innings of work. He stayed away from the big hit, though; San Francisco left 11 men on base in that game.

"He's just not scared of any situation," Wainwright says of Lohse, a 16-game winner this season. "We trust him."

Lohse has a bit of a successful track record in important games for St. Louis recently. He was the starter in the Cardinals' wild-card play-in win over Atlanta, and he was strong (seven innings of two-hit, one-run ball) in a no-decision against Washington in the division series.

And he found a way (was it character?!) in Game 3.

"I've known these guys; now we've played them six games," Lohse said. "I've seen enough of them. I know what I've got to do to be successful. I know the last time I didn't have my best stuff, and I was able to stay away from the big inning. Little things like that. I know what I need to do. It's a matter of going out and doing it."

Lohse will be going out and doing it against a Giants lineup that, at times in this series, has been as punchless as the Cardinals were in Games 5 and 6. Somehow, San Francisco has made it this far in the NLCS with MVP candidate Buster Posey hitting .136, 5-hole hitter Pence hitting .130, left fielder Gregor Blanco hitting .158 and leadoff hitter Angel Pagan hitting .214.

Marco Scutaro (.458), Sandoval (.320) and Brandon Belt (.278) are responsible for what offense the Giants have mustered.

Belt managed only a couple of groundouts and a walk against Lohse the first time around. On facing him again, Belt said, "I think it's going to be the same thing as last time. You've just got to go up there with an approach. Go up there with a zone in mind; and if he gives you a ball in that zone, you've got to make sure you take care of it. He's one of those guys like [Chris] Carpenter. He knows how to keep you off-balance.

"Was that the game we left 11 people on base? So we know we can get people on base. That's not a problem. We're still confident enough in ourselves to get 'em over and get 'em in. Hopefully, that game was just a fluke for us, and we can go out and score a couple of runs [Monday]."

So here we go, the first Game 7 in a League Championship Series since 2008, when the Rays beat the Red Sox 3-1. For what it's worth, the Giants have never won a Game 7 in the playoffs; their 0-5 record in Game 7s is the worst such record in MLB history. St. Louis, meanwhile, is 11-4 in Game 7s, the most wins and best win percentage (minimum of three games) in MLB history.

But you know what? Those records, like the character of the never-say-die Giants and Cardinals, won't much matter come Monday night.

The way they play baseball will.