Three keys for Cards to win Game 6 and NLCS

Three keys for Cards to win Game 6 and NLCS

SAN FRANCISCO -- The National League Championship Series gets down to the nitty gritty on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET (FOX) when the scene switches back to AT&T Park for Game 6 between the Cardinals and the Giants. If the Cards lose, Game 7 is on the horizon at 8 p.m. on Monday.

The Cards are still up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after failing to wrap it up on Friday night at Busch Stadium when the Giants staved off elimination with a 5-0, Game 5 win behind Barry Zito's 7 2/3 shutout innings.

NLCS

This much we know about the defending World Series champion Cardinals. If they are to win Game 6 and ascend to another World Series rematch with the American League-winning Tigers, perhaps opening on Wednesday night in St. Louis, these three things must happen: Carlos Beltran must stay healthy, Chris Carpenter must perform up to expectations against Ryan Vogelsong, and the bullpen must keep producing if he doesn't.

"We're excited to have Carp on the mound anytime we can get him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "And we know in big situations he comes up big for us. We also know they've got a guy throwing the ball extremely well that's going to be on the mound for them. We have to put a better game plan together than the last time and execute it. They're excited about going home and rightfully so. We've got our hands full."

1. It's Carpenter-Vogelsong redux.

In Game 2 this past Monday at San Francisco, Vogelsong out-pitched Carpenter, who threw only four innings in the 7-1 loss that tied the series, 1-1. The Redbirds need the reverse this time.

Carpenter allowed five runs on six hits, but the flood gates opened with his own throwing error as the Giants scored four times to blow open the game in the fourth inning. He threw only 76 pitches.

Carpenter is the club's spiritual leader, which is unusual for a pitcher, but there you have it. His experience and personality are the deciding factors. This guy never quits. He's overcome a number of injuries in his career including a line drive to the face and, more recently, surgery to correct a nerve issue in his neck that kept him out until the last weeks of the regular season.

For the Cardinals, he connects the dots between the World Series winners of 2006 and 2011. Despite the Game 2 loss, his postseason numbers are still a gaudy 10-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 17 starts.

This is his third start of this postseason and the Cards are hoping it will be his best.

2. The bullpen has to keep performing at a high rate if Carpenter doesn't.

Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright put together a pair of decent efforts in Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis, but the Cards have only two quality starts in their first 10 games this postseason. Thus, Matheny has had to go to his bullpen often and sometimes very early.

He's averaging at least five pitchers a game, save for Thursday night's Game 4 when Wainwright twirled seven innings of one-run, four-hit ball and Fernando Salas pitched the final two innings.

Lohse will get the ball again in Game 7 if Carpenter and the 'pen don't come up big on Sunday.

The 'pen stopped the bleeding on Friday night at Busch Stadium, holding the Giants to two hits and a run -- Pablo Sandoval's leadoff eighth-inning homer off Mitchell Boggs -- in 5 1/3 innings of work. That was after Lance Lynn came apart in the fourth inning for the second time in the series, his throwing error to second base leading to four unearned Giants runs in the inning.

Of the four teams that went into the LCS, the Cardinals bullpen led with a 1-0 record, two saves and a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings. Jason Motte has the two saves.

That's the work that must continue if the Cards are going to win this game and thus the series.

3. Beltran must remain healthy and productive.

Beltran has a chronic left knee problem, which caused Matheny to lift him in the second inning of Game 3 and hold him out of Game 4. Matt Carpenter replaced Beltran in right field and hit a two-run homer that was the difference in St. Louis' win in Game 3, and had a double and scored a key run on a bang-bang play at the plate that helped secure Game 4.

Go figure.

But there's no doubt where Matheny's loyalty lies. He waited to decide on Beltran and added him to the lineup a few hours before Game 5. And with good reason. Beltran is hitting .382 (13-for-34) with three homers, five doubles and six RBIs this postseason.

He's proven to be one of the best playoff hitters of all time. Beltran is currently a .371 hitter with a .479 on-base percentage, a 1.289 OPS, 14 homers and 25 RBIs in 32 postseason games. These are not just numbers. They are gaudy numbers.

Beltran had surgery that curtailed his career with the Mets and Matheny said his therapy is an ongoing process. He can only hope that Beltran is healthy enough to be a big contributor in this key game.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.