SAN FRANCISCO — The Cardinals never wanted to be here.
Not back in San Francisco, a city they could have avoided until next April had the club emerged with a Game 5 victory. And certainly not in another win-or-go-home contest, something a Game 6 victory could have prevented
But having lost consecutive games for the first time since Sept. 14-15, St. Louis finds itself on both the brink of elimination and a second straight World Series berth. A 6-1 loss to the Giants at AT&T Park on Sunday night pushes this National League Championship Series to its max, leaving Kyle Lohse, for the second time this postseason, to take the mound with the task of extending the club’s season.
“You’ve seen us the last couple years — it seems, unfortunately, we don’t win until we absolutely need to,” Lohse said. “We got to go in there, wipe the slate clean. We’ve got one game to play.”
Lance Lynn couldn’t close the series on Friday, setting Chris Carpenter up for his fifth start in a potential postseason clincher. The Cards had won three of the previous four. But as valiant an effort as the one Carpenter made to shed the season-ending label once affixed to his midseason surgery, his third start of the postseason — and just his sixth this year — reminded that the rust is still there.
As Carpenter struggled with fastball command early, the Giants jammed the basepaths. With four hits, a pair of walks and a costly Pete Kozma error, San Francisco closed the second with a 5-0 lead. The Redbirds had hardly any answer, stymied for a second time this series by Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong.
It leaves the Cardinals to face their seventh elimination game since the start of the 2011 postseason, their third this month. They have won all of them thus far.
“We won a one-game playoff in Atlanta,” said Daniel Descalso. “We won a big Game 5 in Washington. And now, before we move on, we have to win a Game 7 here.”
“What you’re trying to do in that type of game is play a normal ballgame, because you don’t want the aura of Game 7,” added Lance Berkman. “Clutch performances are simply guys who play normally in big spots. Having a bunch of guys who have done it on this team does give you a measure of ability to master the situation rather than be mastered by it.”
The Giants, though, could say the same, as their victory on Sunday was their fifth in a win-or-go-home game in this postseason alone.
“You go out there and you play like there’s no tomorrow,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “And these guys have done a great job of it. They’re keeping their poise, and they’re finding ways to get it done.”
In order to discard San Francisco, the Cards will have to corral a Giants offense that has outscored St. Louis, 11-1, in the past two games. San Francisco used a one-out walk, Pablo Sandoval double and RBI groundout to jump on Carpenter in the first inning Sunday.
A deluge of trouble then followed in the second.
A leadoff triple and one-out intentional walk brought Vogelsong to the plate. He squared as if to bunt but pulled back while Carpenter delivered and grounded to short. Brandon Belt scored from third, and Kozma’s bobble kept the rookie shortstop from getting an out.
“I just missed it,” Kozma said. “I thought I had a handle on it, and the ball just popped out.”
That inning-extender bit St. Louis, as two-out hits by Marco Scutaro and Sandoval pushed the Giants’ lead to five. With the three unearned runs, San Francisco has now scored 10 in this series.
Though Carpenter worked two more scoreless innings before handing the game over to the Cardinals’ bullpen, the hole was too big. Exactly matching his numbers from a Game 2 start, the veteran right-hander allowed six hits and five runs (two earned) in four innings.
“I’ve got to do a better job or figure out my situation,” said Carpenter, who had never before lost consecutive postseason starts. “But it’s not fair to my ballclub to be down 5-0 all the time after two innings.”
Vogelsong’s outing mirrored his previous one, too, though that was not a welcome encore for the Cards. As he did last week, Vogelsong limited St. Louis to one run and four hits in seven innings. It wasn’t until the fifth, with two outs, that the Redbirds tallied their first hit.
Back-to-back singles by Descalso and Kozma in that frame were wasted. A two-out double by Carlos Beltran and subsequent single from Allen Craig — who had been just 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the team’s cleanup hitter this postseason — was all that prevented St. Louis from being shut out for the second straight game.
The Cardinals, whose offense has been anemic in the team’s losses all postseason, advanced only one other runner as far as second after Craig’s RBI hit.
“Nobody wants to be the guy that doesn’t get it done,” said Vogelsong, who struck out a career-best nine. “I wasn’t as nervous today as I was yesterday on the off-day thinking about [how] I didn’t want to let these guys down. I didn’t want to let the city down.”
St. Louis has scored 52 runs in its seven playoff wins, an average of more than seven runs per game. In the five losses, however, the run total is five.
“Their pitchers have been amazing the last two games,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “You have to give them credit. … We’ll have to make an adjustment.”
The Cards must do so, too, with two of their best hitters ailing. Beltran, though active, is still playing on a compromised knee. Fellow corner outfielder Matt Holliday sat due to back tightness on Sunday. He is questionable for a Game 7 return.
“We know this team on the other side is very motivated and driven. … They’ve got a lot of positive thoughts going into it,” manager Mike Matheny said. “But we do, too. Our guys will come out and play a different brand of baseball tomorrow.”
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.