The St. Louis Cardinals entered Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday up three games to one on the San Francisco Giants, just one win from securing a spot in the World Series. All they had to do was beat Giants starter Barry Zito, who hasn’t had an earned-run average under 4.03 in six years.
That sounds doable enough. The Cardinals scored eight runs the night before against 2008 and 2009 Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Instead, Zito, who did win a Cy Young award with the Oakland A’s in 2002, shut the Cardinals down for eight innings, and the Giants won 5-0.
That means instead of a free weekend to rest and prepare for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday at home against the Detroit Tigers, the Cardinals had to trek back out to San Francisco. Additionally, they will face Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain in games 6 and 7, against whom the Cardinals have scored a combined four runs in their first starts of the series.
The Cardinals could have wrapped up the NL pennant Friday, but no, that wouldn’t have let them win in their typical pull-your-hair-out, blood-vessel-bursting excitement and drama. This is the 2012 Cardinals, who are an extension of the 2011 Cardinals. They do things the hard way.
The Cardinals could’ve wrapped up the second wild card spot by beating the Cincinnati Reds in the second-to-last game of the season, but they didn’t. They lost 3-1 and had to rely on the Giants to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers later that night to clinch the NL Central.
They also could’ve knocked out the Washington Nationals in Game 4 of the Division Series but lost 2-1 on a walk-off homerun by Jayson Werth. That led into a 6-0 deficit in Game 5 that required a miracle comeback just to make the National League Championship Series.
The Cardinals could have saved lots of stress and heartburn for their fans had they won Game 5 Friday night, but that’s not how the Cardinals operate. They seek out the most tense moments possible and still prevail. Sometimes it feels like the Cardinals are in on a big prank where they know they will win, but they want to make that victory as dramatic as possible.
That now might have to be how they win the NLCS. Vogelsong and Cain are very good pitchers, and the Giants will have both games at home. Of course, the Cardinals will counter with Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse on the mound, but gosh it would’ve been nice to wrap up the series at home with a little bit of a cushion.
The one benefit of all of the close, back-against-the-wall victories is that they are certainly fun to celebrate. Thankfully, the Cardinals have won every one of those games in the last two years, but that possibility of a loss looms over those games larger than a Directv blimp.
But with Friday’s loss, they once again opened the door on the possibility that Game 5 might have been the last game in Busch Stadium this year.
The Cardinals knew going into the series the Giants wouldn’t be easy to eliminate. San Francisco has a very good team that pitches well and can generate runs without having to hit the ball out of the park. That’s going to make the remainder of the NLCS fun to watch for baseball fans, especially fun for the winning team’s fans and heartbreaking for the losing team.
The Cardinals have once again let a postseason series head toward the brink of an elimination, win-or-go-home game that will be seared into the memories of Cardinals fans forever.
It’s more fun that way, right?