SAN FRANCISCO -- These St. Louis Cardinals have been here before.
Not to Game 7 -- though they've famously been there, too -- but a maddening place where even the second-best offense in the National League can resemble a team from the dead ball era.
For the second game in a row in this National League Championship Series, the Cardinals' bats looked like hapless toothpicks flailing through the night sky.
In Game 5 on Friday, it was the San Francisco Giants' Barry Zito and his 84-mile-per-hour fastball that shut the Cards down. In Game 6 on Sunday night, they could do mostly nothing with Ryan Vogelsong's dancing two-seamer. When they weren't frozen in the batter's box they were executing off-balanced pirouettes, lunging and spinning and coming up empty. And when the final out was recorded, Vogelsong had struck out nine Cardinals -- a new career high.
St. Louis tallied 765 runs this year, second only to the Washington Nationals (776) in the NL. But after putting up eight runs in the first seven innings of Game 4 of this series, the Cardinals have scored just once in the 19 innings since. It's an extension of the frustrating feast-or-famine run-scoring roller coaster they endured for much of 2012. "Our team has done that all season," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "We've had some games where we stack on runs, and then we go absolutely hitless. But any day we know that our offense can pull out quite a bit of production. Hopefully it's tomorrow."
If not, their season will be over.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, their bats will have to awaken Monday night against Matt Cain, one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball. And they may once again be without slugger Matt Holliday. The hard-hitting left fielder was a late scratch from Sunday's game after experiencing lower-back stiffness during batting practice. "He didn't look right," Allen Craig said. "He clearly looked like he was in some pain and it looked frustrating for him." Holliday underwent an MRI on Sunday night and his status for Game 7 is uncertain.
What is certain is the Cardinals' offense is capable of exploding, with or without Holliday. In the final days of August, they scored a total of just one run in a four-game stretch. They responded in their next contest by hanging 10 on the board against the Nationals -- including eight off Jordan Zimmermann, who finished the season with the seventh-lowest ERA in the NL (2.94). "When our bats get silenced for a couple days like they have, the way I look at it there's a lot of hits left," said Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter, who was added to the lineup when Holliday was pulled. (Craig then shifted from first base to left field.) "We've got some guys that are fixing to catch fire, hopefully sooner rather than later."
They couldn't so much as light a match Sunday with Vogelsong on the hill. When asked what happened to the Cardinals' offense in Game 6, third baseman David Freese offered high praise for the Giants' starter. "When he's sitting around the black [on the corners], in my opinion, he's one of the toughest pitchers to face," Freese said. "He stays out of a hitters' zone better than most. He runs the ball in and hits his spots. His heater away looks like it's out and then he sticks it black. His heater in looks middle initially, then it runs in."
So was it just an unfortunate occasion of running into a unhittable pitcher or does the St. Louis offense need to do more?
"Both," Freese said. "Even if we face tough pitching I think we have the ability to put up runs. We're a team that's usually pretty patient and we haven't been. With borderline strikes we've got to do a better job."
After jumping out to a 3-1 lead in this series, the Cardinals have watched the Giants -- a team built around pitching and more pitching -- outscore them 11-1 in Games 5 and 6 to even the NLCS at three games apiece.
The Cards are going to have figure out a way to put runs on the board in Game 7 in spite of the injuries that have ravaged the heart of their lineup. Carlos Beltran's knee is ailing. Lance Berkman is out for the season. Holliday's season may be over, too.
Regardless of who's able to stand in the box against him Monday, the Cardinals are confident in their ability to get the better of Cain. "I'll probably get roasted for saying this, but I still think if you take a guy like Matt [Holliday] out of our lineup we still have a better lineup [than the Giants']," Berkman said. "We're still more dangerous. I would take our lineup over their lineup, even without Matt. No disrespect, I just think we have a really good team."
They are, after all, the defending champs. And the road to the World Series goes through them Monday night. The Giants have never won a Game 7 in their history. The Cardinals are 11-4 all time in Game 7s -- the best clip of any team in baseball.
"Winner keeps going, loser goes home," Freese said. "It's going to be awesome. There's nothing better."