ST. LOUIS — On a night when Adam Wainwright delivered a redemptive performance, the Cardinals’ offense, with a display of its depth, pushed the defending World Series champions to within one game of a return trip to the Fall Classic.
Driven largely by the middle-of-the-order hitters who had been so silent all series, the Cards grabbed an 8-3 victory over the Giants to push their National League Championship Series lead to 3-1. By taking two straight games at home, the Redbirds have the chance to secure a rematch of the 2006 World Series without having to leave town.
Busch Stadium, which was filled to capacity on Thursday night, will host Game 5 on Friday (7 p.m. CT on FOX). It will be the first of three chances the Cardinals get to earn a tango with the Tigers, who captured the American League pennant by completing a sweep of the Yankees earlier in the day.
“We want to wrap it up just to wrap it up,” David Freese said afterward. “But if you can do that here with these fans and with your family and friends, even better.”
The Cards have positioned themselves well for the task, too. While San Francisco had to run through five relievers, St. Louis’ only call was to Fernando Salas. That gave Jason Motte, in particular, much-desired rest a night after completing a two-inning save.
Carlos Beltran earned a night off, too, as manager Mike Matheny never needed to ask his ailing outfielder (strained left knee) for a lift off the bench. Rather, the lifting was done collectively by a group of eight position players that tallied more hits in seven innings (12) than they had in the last two games (11) combined.
“When this lineup is getting contributions from everybody, it’s tough to get through,” Daniel Descalso said. “You have Matt [Holliday] and Allen [Craig] and Yadi [Molina] and David … they may go a few games, but they’re not going to go more than a few without doing something.”
Surprisingly, the bunch had gone several.
In addition to racing out to a 2-1 series advantage without the backing of a dominant pitching performance, the Cardinals had seen little life from the team’s most potent bats. Holliday, Craig and Molina — the club’s Nos. 3-4-5 hitters — had combined for five total bases and not a lone RBI in the first three games of this series.
“Things,” cautioned Craig, “can turn around in a heartbeat.”
And my, they did.
On Thursday, the trio had a combined five hits and drove home five runs, including all four scored off Giants starter Tim Lincecum. The once-dominant San Francisco starter couldn’t make it a full five innings.
“We know he’s coming off pitching well in the ‘pen lately,” Matt Carpenter said of Lincecum. “But at the same time, we know there was a little bit of a doubt with his command lately. We wanted to make sure that we did a good job of making him throw strikes and getting our pitch to hit.”
Sure enough, Lincecum labored from the get-go, allowing the first three batters he faced in a 25-pitch first inning to reach. The first of Holliday’s two RBI singles staked the Cards to the early advantage. Craig followed with a sacrifice fly.
Lincecum settled down and into what then looked to be shaping up as a pitchers’ duel. Aside from a mistake-turned-homer by Hunter Pence in the second, Wainwright was cruising as well. Both he and Lincecum had retired seven straight as the Cardinals came to bat in the fifth.
By the time the frame ended, the outcome would never again be in question.
Holliday and Molina delivered run-scoring hits in the fifth. Jon Jay’s double plated two more in the sixth. Molina and Pete Kozma completed the piling on with seventh-inning RBI hits.
“It was good that we broke through with some big hits and some RBI situations,” Holliday said. “It’s never easy, particularly in the postseason, to get those runs home. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.”
It was the perfect showcase of the lineup’s depth. Each starting position player had at least one hit. Five spots in the lineup contributed an RBI. Seven players scored.
And it all provided a plenty substantial cushion for Wainwright, who, a week ago, was left to beg his teammates for a bailout. Having lasted only 2 1/3 innings in a win-or-go-home Division Series game against the Nationals, Wainwright spoke with little reservation about how excited he was for a second chance.
Starting his first career LCS game, the right-hander snapped a string of shaky starting performances by Cards pitchers. The first St. Louis starter to pitch six innings this series, Wainwright actually finished seven. He allowed four hits, Pence’s 451-foot blast the only costly one.
“It was very satisfying,” Wainwright said. “A little part of me wanted to reprove it to myself that I could go out there and pitch great when we need me to. I knew I could. I was very confident in my ability and my stuff. I just needed to trust it and go out there and make pitches.”
Wainwright dealt with multiple baserunners in an inning only once. That threat ended swiftly, as he recorded a pair of outs to strand runners on the corners in the sixth. Wainwright would wrap up the next inning with a pitch count of 96. Of those, 70 were strikes.
“I actually think Wainwright today was as good as you’re going to see,” Pence said. “He was spot-on with his location. Obviously, you can hit it, but you also have to find a hole.”
The win was Wainwright’s first as a postseason starter. He’ll have a chance for a second only if the Cardinals advance one round deeper.
The good news for Wainwright is this: Since the best-of-seven LCS format was introduced, 12 of the 14 teams to hold a 3-1 NLCS advantage have gone to the World Series.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet what we’ve accomplished so far,” Carpenter said. “I think it’s partly because we’re still focused on making sure we go out and win this next game. But it’s a great spot to be in. We’re looking forward to coming here tomorrow and trying to finish this off.”
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It’s Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.