ST. LOUIS -- It's funny how things don't turn out the way you had in mind.
Funny if you're up three games to one, that is.
You put the Buster Poseys and Carlos Beltrans and Matt Cains and Chris Carpenters of the world on a field and ask them to play a best-of-seven series for the right to advance to the Promised Land, and you'd think the series would hinge on those we hype.
But there's no seeing the unforeseen, no knowing the unknowable. Why else would we be on the verge of a World Series featuring a couple of 88-win clubs?
Series of this scope aren't necessarily won by the best and brightest of the sport's stars. They are won by the club that accrues the unexpected in positive supply, the team with the depth to dodge the rabbit punches delivered by the hands of fate.
In this National League Championship Series, it has become increasingly clear that that team is the St. Louis Cardinals, for they have, thus far, answered the adversity and triumphed over the trickery of October's whims. With Thursday's 8-3 victory at Busch Stadium in the books, the Cards are one win away from a Fall Classic date with the Tigers.
Most postseason RBIs by a Cardinals rookie
And the Giants? Well, suffice to say, their season now hinges on Barry Zito against a lineup prone to crushing lefties.
It's gotten to this grim state for San Francisco because none of the Giants, save for Ryan Vogelsong in his stellar Game 2 start, have gone above and beyond the call of duty. It's a lot like Hunter Pence's patchy, not-quite-complete beard-in-training: The desire is there and the effort is made, but it just hasn't come together. And the margin for error in this environment is, ahem, razor thin.
"The story is yet to be written," said Pence, about the team and not the beard.
And hey, maybe he's right. These are, after all, the same Giants who rallied in historic fashion against the Reds last week. If they can take Game 5 here at Busch Stadium, they'll have Vogelsong and Matt Cain lined up for Games 6 and 7 in San Francisco.
In the immediate, though, all we can assess is what we've seen. And what we've seen is a Cardinals team that keeps going to that extra gear, keeps delivering that extra element you didn't see coming and a Giants team scrambling with lineup changes and lottery ticket-type starting circumstances.
Look no further than Game 4. The Cards jumped out to an early lead they would not relinquish in part because of the on-base ability of Matt Carpenter, entrusted not only with the injured Beltran's starting spot but his specific lineup spot -- at No. 2. After Jon Jay led off with a single off Tim Lincecum, Carpenter drew a walk on four pitches, and the stage was set for the Matt Holliday single and Allen Craig sacrifice fly that put a pair up on the scoreboard for St. Louis.
And in the fifth, guess what? Carpenter again. A one-out double to set up another big single from Holliday, which begot an RBI single from Yadier Molina. Another big inning set up, in part, by a guy low on the radar (if he was on the radar at all), extending the trend that has seen the likes of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso and Edward Mujica emerge as late-season stars for the Redbirds.
"Without those guys," Holliday said, "we're probably not here."
Where are those guys for the Giants?
Lincecum, fraught with command woes and declining fastball velocity all season, was that kind of guy in an NL Division Series relief role. It didn't matter that he was a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner making north of $20 million. In this postseason, with those 2012 numbers burned in recent memory, anything the Giants got from Timmy had to be viewed as a bonus.
But when full faith was once again placed in "The Freak" in Game 4, he could not deliver on demand. He needed 25 pitches to get through the first, another 19 to get through the second. He pitched out of the stretch from the very beginning to aid his comfort level, but very quickly the stretch was necessary anyway. Lincecum would eventually right himself, to some degree, but unlike Adam Wainwright on the other side, this was not the reclamation of past glories that had been desired and -- in retrospect, given how good Wainwright looked -- required.
"When it comes down to it," Lincecum said, "it's not about what I've done [in the past]. I've got to find a way to do it differently now and get my outs. That's the frustrating part, is I've always kind of been able to transition on the run and never been necessarily worried about that. For me to not make that adjustment on the run now is hard."
Bruce Bochy adjusted his lineup for this tilt, and it came back to bite him. Hector Sanchez replaced the struggling Brandon Belt, only to strike out three times and make a pivotal misplay on Brandon Crawford's relay throw to thwart a would-be out at the plate when Carpenter streaked home in the fifth.
That's not meant to pick on Bochy, of course, for he's merely trying to throw as much spaghetti at the wall as possible. But nothing's sticking for these Giants, because nobody in that lineup -- not Posey, who has yet to pull a ball in the air in four games, and not his supporting cast -- has come through clutch enough to change the course of this series.
On Friday, it's Zito on the hill. Bochy yanked him after just 2 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLDS, so that speaks to the confidence level we're dealing with here. Zito was a September stopper for this club, though run support was often in his favor, and the runs have been hard to come by for the Giants thus far this series.
Perhaps Zito will surprise us Friday, sending this series back west, where the Giants like what they have lined up.
But that would, of course, be one of the first surprises to favor the Giants in a series that keeps coming up Cards.