NLCS even as Cardinals let Giants pull away

NLCS even as Cardinals let Giants pull away

NLCS even as Cardinals let Giants pull away
SAN FRANCISCO -- In a season where the Cardinals fought against a streaky offense and, for several months, an unsettled bullpen, it was with regularity that the starting pitching would respond to steady the club.

But first the Nationals, and now the Giants, have poked holes in that rotation, forcing the onus onto the Cards' offense and bullpen to pick it up. Neither could provide such a lift on Monday, leaving St. Louis with a 7-1 loss to San Francisco at AT&T Park and a split of the first two games of the National League Championship Series.

The series now shifts to St. Louis, where the first of three games at Busch Stadium will be played on Wednesday (3 p.m. CT on FOX).

"We are facing a good team," said catcher Yadier Molina. "They made it tough for us. They had tough at-bats against us and got the win today. If we make mistakes, they're going to make us pay."

Mistakes from the mound have been too frequent as of late for a Cardinals club on a mission to repeat as World Series champions. Having survived an abbreviated start by Lance Lynn in Game 1, the Cards could not overcome a second straight subpar starting performance.

This time it was Chris Carpenter making the early exit, doing so after a four-run fourth spiraled south with a pair of choppers and two errors. By the end of the 29-pitch frame, the Giants had flipped a tie game into a four-run lead.

"It definitely didn't go in the direction I wanted it to go, I can tell you that," Carpenter said. "[Command] has continued to get better as my starts have gone on, but tonight it was not there. I wasn't very sharp."

That four-run inning ended Carpenter's start, just his fifth of 2012. It also forced a bullpen that covered 5 1/3 innings a night earlier to shoulder another four. The trend is nothing new.

The Cardinals have one six-inning start in eight postseason games and have squeezed more than four innings out of their starting pitcher only twice in the past six. In all, the number of innings covered by the bullpen (34) nearly matches the number pitched by the starters (36).

"I look at it as they're capitalizing on mistakes that we make," said pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, when asked about the pattern. "Good hitting clubs do that. If we minimize the mistakes, we'll get deeper in the ballgames."

Oddly, it nearly mirrors St. Louis' NLCS stay in 2011. During last year's six-game series against the Brewers, the Cards averaged four innings per start.

"If I had an explanation, we'd fix it and we wouldn't have been stuck in the fourth again," said manager Mike Matheny, whose club never endured three straight starts of fewer than five innings during the regular season. "These guys have done a nice job for us, our starters have pitched deep into the game for us all season long."

Monday's fourth inning turned on two choppers, beginning with the one Gregor Blanco skipped over the head of a drawn-in David Freese at third. That put runners on the corners for Brandon Crawford, whose chopper back at Carpenter led to one run and no outs.

Crawford reached when first baseman Allen Craig couldn't handle Carpenter's off-balance throw to first, which was scored as an error on Carpenter.

"It was just a crazy play," Carpenter said. "No fault on anybody."

After a sacrifice bunt and walk loaded the bases, Marco Scutaro -- who had been taken out at second base by a hard Matt Holliday slide in the first inning -- delivered a line drive into the left-center-field gap. Two runners scored easily, and a third followed when Holliday let the ball scoot past him.

It would be Scutaro's final at-bat before being removed with what was described as a left hip injury, the result of that first-inning collision.

"What he did was extremely inspiring," San Francisco outfielder Hunter Pence said of his teammate. "We all know what's at stake. I don't believe that Holliday was going in to hurt anybody. I believe that he went in really hard to break up a double play, and Scutaro took a tough shot."

"He's had an unbelievable second half, and he's come up with huge hits for them," said Holliday, who faulted himself for sliding too late in an attempt to break up a double play. "I'm not surprised at all. I hope he's OK."

Whereas the Giants' four-run inning on Sunday pulled them closer, this one pulled them away. That was credit to Ryan Vogelsong (seven innings), who tamed St. Louis' offense en route to becoming the first San Francisco starter to pitch at least six innings this postseason.

Pete Kozma's two-out, second-inning walk and a subsequent double by Carpenter accounted for the Cardinals' only damage off the 35-year-old right-hander, who is on a postseason roster for the first time in his career.

"They had a good plan," Freese said of Vogelsong and batterymate Buster Posey. "They stayed out of the middle of the plate. They expanded it when they needed to. He got stronger toward the end of the game. We were grinding up there but had nothing to show for it."

The Cards finished hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position. At the end of the night, the Nos. 4-8 spots in St. Louis' lineup had one hit to show for its collective effort.

"They're obviously a strong enough offensive team," Vogelsong said. "Their numbers speak for themselves. I just really tried to keep mixing it up."

Even the Cardinals' bullpen cracked on this night, as the Giants tacked on two eighth-inning runs off Shelby Miller, who had thrown a perfect seventh with two strikeouts in his postseason debut. A missed tag call by first-base umpire Bill Miller compounded the inning, which also included a hit falling between Freese and Holliday in shallow left field.

The loss sends St. Louis home with a split, the same position the club found itself in last year after also opening the NLCS on the road.

"It's a great team over there," Freese said. "Unfortunately we didn't grab this game. That would have been comforting to take two early."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for 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.